With elephant and rhino populations in rapid decline, conservationists and tech companies are working together to bring sophisticated anti-poaching technology to the savanna.
After the heat of day passes and night falls on the African savanna, animals come out to roam. So, too, do the poachers who hunt them, some armed with snares and machetes, others with guns and chainsaws.
These poachers slaughter elephants or rhinos, collecting ivory tusks or keratin horns to sell for cash. They leave the rest of the carcasses – and other species unintentionally caught in the crossfire – to rot.
Illegal poaching may soon be on the decline, however, thanks to conservationists at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and tech companies FLIR and Google, who provided rangers on African reserves access to sophisticated anti-poaching technology.
Using thermal imaging cameras, human detection software and drones, rangers have arrested over 100 poachers since the program launched last year, deterring countless others.
“Poachers can no longer use the cover of night to run and hide,” said Colby Loucks, WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project lead. “Wildlife rangers now have the help they’ve desperately needed.”
“This groundbreaking technology allows them to search for poachers 24 hours a day, from up to a mile away, in pitch darkness,” he continued. “It’s upping the game in our fight to stop wildlife crime across the region.”
Helping Animals in Need
According to the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, poachers slaughter approximately 30,000 elephants per year. In just a decade, this has led to a 64 percent reduction in the elephant population of Central Africa, where they are now endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
Equally devastated, have been rhino populations. Poaching rose dramatically after 2007 (when only 13 rhinos were killed) due to demand in Vietnam, where rhino horns were rumored to hold medicinal properties, including the ability to cure hangovers and cancer. There is no scientific evidence to support this.
Data indicates that poachers wiped out 1,299 rhinos in 2014 and 1,305 in 2015, leaving white rhinos “near threatened” and black rhinos “critically endangered.”
Tech to the Rescue
In 2012, the WWF utilised a $5 million grant from the philanthropic arm of Google, to develop technology to address the crisis.
Working with FLIR, the team created technologies including surveillance systems using thermal imaging cameras and human detection software to identify poachers from afar, and alert authorities.
In March, 2016, the program launched at the Maasai Mara National Reserve and another location in Kenya.
“Rangers are excited about the new technology,” said Loucks. “It makes their job safer; they can see what they’re getting into – for example, whether the poachers have guns or not.”
The new surveillance system allows rangers to monitor nighttime activity around the park, in real time, on monitors in mobile units. Infrared cameras placed on top of vehicles stream images of moving thermal bodies. The software differentiates between animal and human heat signatures, so that rangers know exactly where to go to apprehend poachers, even in the pitch-black.
“The ability of our rangers to distinguish potential poachers from a large distance is nothing short of remarkable,” said Brian Heath, Director of the Mara Conservancy.
“The last three people our team arrested were flabbergasted as to how they were detected,” he said. “Normally they simply sneak away when an ambush is sprung and avoid detection. Now, their heat signatures are picked up by the thermal camera. We’re catching them.”
Within nine months, the surveillance system enabled rangers to arrest over two dozen poachers in the Maasai Mara and two more at the second site.
Loucks said rangers see their new surveillance system as a “force multiplier” since the cameras have extended their oversight.
“The tech has been so effective, rangers no longer have to patrol a certain perimeter of the park,” he continued. “It’s proving to be a great deterrent to poachers.”
Eyes in the Sky
In October 2016, WWF rolled out a second pilot in Zimbabwe and Malawi, using drones to carry thermal imaging cameras. Piloted by professional drone pilots, these drones have flown more than a thousand missions to date, assisting with anti-poaching efforts.
Because these tech efforts are pilot programs, WWF is still collecting data to gauge impact. Currently, more than 100 poachers have been arrested because of the surveillance systems.
Loucks said the next step is to scale up these models to equip other wildlife parks and reserves with similar technologies.
“Eventually, we hope to expand our footprint across Africa and then Asia,” he said. “The goal is to use tech to save wildlife around the world.”