With advancements in medicine, the prevention of epidemics, and better nutrition, the rise of the human population has become pronounced. The same cannot be said for animals. Humans continue to exert pressure not just on natural resources but also on wildlife.
In fact, the figures in the population of wildlife portray a grim picture. Illicit activities such as poaching and wildlife trafficking are pushing endangered species closer to extinction. While the efforts made by international organizations and government authorities are on, a lot more needs to be done before it’s too late.
Here’s how advanced technology is being leveraged to combat such illegal activities.
The problem is grave
An estimate in the 2018 Living Planet Report by the WWF International suggests that the global population of vertebrate animals has fallen by almost 60% since 1970 (1970-2014).
At the London 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade conference, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt shared some dismal numbers: “Forty years ago, Africa had about 1.3 million elephants. Today, the figure is down by two thirds to 415,000. In Asia, the population of wild tigers has dropped by 95% since 1900.”
Different species of wildlife are poached for different reasons—elephants for ivory, rhinoceros for horns, tigers and leopards for skin, and iguanas are caught for the pet trade, among others. The demand for ivory, which is seen as a symbol of status and wealth, continues to remain high, a primary factor leading to devastating poaching across regions such as Africa.
It is estimated that at least 33,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks in the African continent alone. Not just elephants -- rhino poaching rose by 7,700% in South Africa during 2007 to 2013.
By one estimate, illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth most profitable crime in the world, after drugs, humans, and arms, generating as much as $23 billion.
A solution in technology may help to reduce the menace of poaching
By using deep network algorithms, it is possible to detect human and vehicle presence with high degree of accuracy to ‘sound alerts.’ One such device is RESOLVE’s TrailGuard AI camera which is powered by Intel’s (INTC) tiny yet powerful Intel Movidius Myriad2 VPU, which delivers visual intelligence to the camera itself, resulting in several important benefits.
The AI technology is being used to detect poachers entering Africa’s wildlife reserves and alert park rangers in near real-time so poachers can be stopped before killing endangered animals.
TrailGuard AI will be deployed in 100 reserves in Africa throughout 2019, starting with Serengeti and Garamba in partnership with the National Geographic Society and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. There are plans to expand to Southeast Asia and South America.
The authorities at the 37,000 hectares Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa are collaborating with IBM (IBM) to harness cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and predictive analytics technologies to combat the poaching of endangered rhinos. Collars with embedded sensors that are placed on typical preyed-upon animals, including zebra, wildebeest, eland and impala, leaving out the rhinos.
The information via sensors related to location, movement pattern, direction and average speed of travel of these animals is monitored and studied. The data collected is being used to create algorithms, built on the prey-animals’ response to perceived threats to making poaching predictable, and thus preventable.
Meanwhile Microsoft (MSFT) with its AI for Earth initiative has been giving grants to projects that use artificial intelligence for building a sustainable future. Traditionally, analysts spend hours and hours studying thousands of images taken from satellites, drones or camera traps in the wild to decipher range, populations, and behaviors of animals otherwise rarely seen by humans. It is laborious work. This is one area where advanced technologies such as deep learning is making a difference.
A Microsoft AI solution is accelerating the process with a machine learning model that can identify snow leopards and automatically classify hundreds of thousands of photos in a matter of minutes. The Elephant Listening Project and Wild Me are some other Microsoft backed AI projects for wildlife conservation.
In response to the aggressive poaching activities in Africa, Vulcan, Inc. developed EarthRanger. Vulcan, Inc. describes itself as the engine behind philanthropist and Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen's network of organizations and initiatives. Vulcan’s EarthRanger is a software platform that collects information on activity in a protected area using digital radios, animal collars and vehicle tracking. All such information was previously housed on separate devices creating disconnects.
EarthRanger integrates it all into a single one-stop data hub. The platform also adds ranger observations such as snare traps, animal carcasses and footsteps. One single stop for all data enables quicker analysis and proactively intercepts poaching activity. The EarthRanger is deployed in a multiple location across Africa.
The illicit wildlife trade is a primary reason that many species are endangered, and these activities are a part of a bigger network
These crimes are orchestrated by sophisticated criminal networks that smuggle guns, people, and drugs. While a lot needs to be done to curb these heinous crimes, the deployment of advanced technologies is a positive step forward.
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