Tracking Wildlife

Conservationists leverage data analytics capabilities in combatting illicit wildlife practices


In 2012, Sudanese poachers in search of ivory and armed with grenades and AK-47s entered the Bouba Ndjida National Park, in Cameroon, and slaughtered more than 300 African elephants. By 2014, about 100,000 of them had been killed by poachers. Poaching poses a growing threat to all wildlife, from the most alluring to the most obscure. The animals are killed or captured and sold either locally or to international markets—wildlife trading is a major multibillion-dollar business in the black market. But it has devastating consequences, such as irrecoverable biodiversity loss, the spread of infectious diseases, negative social and economic impacts, feeding global terrorism, and threatening U.S. national security.

But with the help of innovative technology and research, conservationists are fighting back. Wildlife tracking data enables conservationists to combat these illicit wildlife practices. Scientists and conservationists have systematically tracked wildlife movement since the early 1900s with bird banding. As technology continues to progress, scientists are developing more effective ways to track wildlife movement and leverage data capabilities to combat illicit wildlife practices.

Footprint Data

Peter Law from WildTrack working with Namibian anti-poaching units to monitor using footprints. (Photo credit: WildTrack)

WildTrack, a nonprofit organization dedicated to non-invasive wildlife monitoring, leveraged data analytics capabilities through their Footprint Identification Technique (FIT), powered by JMP Software. FIT enables local trackers to collect animal footprints and identify the species, individual, sex and age-class of the animal that made them. This capability allows them to not just map wildlife populations, but also reduce human-wildlife conflict.

When the digital footprint images are uploaded to JMP, analysts identify landmark points on the image that the software converts into essential baseline data on numbers and distribution of the endangered animals. Coupled with a GPS overlay, the WildTrack team is then able to put together a census for individual species in specific regions and inform on wildlife vulnerability for their other partners, such as the U.S. Army Research Office, working on anti-poaching.

A black rhino footprint, (Photo Credit: WildTrack)

“All these bits of information are absolutely essential in providing the fundamental information needed to set up an anti-poaching tracking unit. And we’re getting a lot of [it] using footprint evidence,” said Sky Alibhai, director and co-founder for WildTrack.

In addition, WildTrack also begun using drones and infrared cameras.

“We are working with a company called SenseFly,” said Zoe Jewell, president and co-founder of WildTrack. “They produce this amazing fixed-wing drone called the eBee X. We can identify animals and their trails from the air.” By attaching an infrared camera, she continued, animals can be identified at night, along with the poachers hunting them.

Applying Analytics

The Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute (CWTI), one of the first tenants in St. Louis’ T-REX startup incubator, addresses the issue on a much broader scale by implementing a two-pillar system into their process.

Through its geospatial analytics (pillar one), CWTI offers frontline support for organizations involved in combatting wildlife trafficking. It enables organizations to effectively interpret and enhance their wildlife data to inform and advance efforts to address illicit wildlife practices and its consequences.

Dr. Odean Serrano, founder of CWTI, expanded on their system’s approach. “Because of my background and knowledge of what intelligence and/or law enforcement stakeholders needs are, I’ve developed an analytic environment to streamline our frontline analytics to complement transnational threat analytics and/or law enforcement analytics.” She continued, CWTI assists anti-poaching units who compliment conservationist missions on one end of the spectrum and on the other end, we can inform law enforcement and intelligence communities to further their analysis.

Serrano partners with Chengeta Wildlife, a premier anti-poaching organization that provides training for rangers who guard against poaching by delivering specialized frontline training and mentoring to groups combatting wildlife trafficking. The rangers, trained by Chengeta, work in incredibly austere environments. Rory Young, co-founder and president of Chengeta Wildlife, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that geospatial analytics can show where poaching is most concentrated so that rangers can focus on those areas, rather than spreading out in smaller groups. Chengeta’s portfolio integrates ranger training with expert socio-cultural analysis and investigative analysis that is integrated within a geospatial analytic environment.

Chengeta Wildlife, WWF, Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute Geo-Analytics. (Image credit: Chengeta Wildlife WWF, CWTI)

With Esri software, CWTI is able to offer global analysis with basic features, like roads and waterways. Those features are then layered with observations from research efforts on the ground, showing a variety of factors related to wildlife trafficking.

Academics, NGOs, and any other organization involved in deterring wildlife trafficking efforts can add to and work with the data, giving everyone involved a better ability to stop poaching incidents before they happen. This open collaboration enhances CWTI’s research partnerships (pillar two) to advance academic and conservation research through its interoperable data.

“Most conservation organizations collect data and they may have an analyst on their team to do the analysis for that specific mission. Often it is a species-specific mission rather than analyzing a holistic system of all things trafficked,” said Serrano. “With geospatial analysis, we are linking anti-poaching operations with conservation missions with an intent to inform on the understanding of the convergence of other trafficking commodities, so that all stakeholders can leverage from one another’s activities.”

Photo Credit: ShareAmerica

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