Wired and free: the uneasy alliance of wildlife and technology
AI, facial recognition and drones are being used to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, but there are drawbacks
For lovers of wildlife documentaries, the hidden camera has been providing stunning images of animals up close to wow viewers. In the BBC’s Dynasties, a well-placed motion-detection camera at a watering hole picked up the moment a male tiger met his cub.
Hidden cameras and technology have long had a part to play in conservation. Remote cameras are used to find locations and movements of animals and study them, and increasingly to track poachers. Now some of the world’s biggest technology companies are using artificial intelligence, facial-recognition software, drones and satellite tracking to help in the battle against the illegal wildlife trade.
One recent development has come from tech giant Intel, which is supplying cameras that can recognise human figures to help quickly identify trespassers for ranger teams. This year, the hidden cameras, known as Trailguard AI, will be deployed to the Serengeti by wildlife charity Resolve to protect elephants, and will also be used in Southeast Asia.
Technology has often been touted as something of a cure-all for wildlife problems. Well-meaning initiatives have sprung up to bring costly equipment to cash-strapped parks. At times it has proved an uneasy relationship. “It is about making sure [technology] is context-specific and it responds to the needs of people working on the ground rather than retrofitting it to a situation,” says Paul de Ornellas, chief science adviser at the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).
Poaching has become a hot topic for technology to tackle. According to the World Economic Forum, the black market for poaching, from rhino horn to tiger pelts, is worth up to $23bn a year. Not every tech-sponsored project has had the desired effect. A 2014 effort to bring anti-poaching drones to Namibia by the WWF, sponsored for $5m by Google, was driven out by the government, citing security concerns. “Sometimes you try these and they fit and sometimes they don’t work so effectively,” De Ornellas says.
But many such projects are now making a return. Specialised infrared cameras are being used in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. These systems, deployed by the WWF and developed by Flir Systems, have led to dozens of poachers being arrested. In Malawi, specialised thermal imaging BatHawk drones have been trialled from the non-profit African Parks and commercial drone operator UAV & Drone Solutions. Back in the Serengeti, Intel claims its cameras can help augment the capabilities of 150 rangers when they are tracking and monitoring poachers.
Not all conservationists are convinced by big tech, as companies well drilled in surveillance or even military activities can prove a burden on parks. Many poachers come heavily armed, and in SA rangers have to risk their lives for as little as R4,450 per month, meaning tech experiments rather than additional boots on the ground are not always welcomed.
“All this tech comes along and a heck of a lot of it proves to be useless and expensive,” says Adam Welz, an independent conservationist. Drones in particular have run into challenges, he adds, such as being banned above parks in some cases in Kenya and Namibia. Other limitations of some small drones, such as their lightweight batteries lasting about 30 minutes, make them hard to use in the vast wilderness.
Welz points to the ethical challenge of turning a wildlife park into a veritable armed enclosure, of drones and thermal detectors. Ultimately, he wonders whether this cash could go towards helping local communities who turn to poaching as a way to escape poverty.
However, some systems have claimed success. The Meerkat system in the Kruger National Park uses remote thermal imaging cameras and is solar-powered and portable, so it can be taken by truck or helicopter to hot spots. The system caught 90 poachers in its first six months of operation in 2017.
Despite their limitations, in some places drones are starting to win small victories. In Guyana, South America, a drone operation, in collaboration with the US group Digital Democracy, helped map lands for the Wapichana indigenous people so they could stake their claim against illegal logging companies to seven million acres. They have also built an online early-warning system using satellite data.
“It’s not that a tech solution is always the answer,” De Ornellas says. “It is knowing what the need is.”
– © The Daily Telegraph
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