Fighting Poaching with the Cloud

Using satellite imagery, big data and innovative predictive algorithms, it’s now animal poachers who are being hunted

In the battle against animal poaching in the UK and around the world, wildlife protection organisations have some new weapons at their disposal. These take the form of cloud and data analysis platforms, allowing them to deploy brand new techniques to curb the illegal killing of endangered species and to track unregulated fishing.

In Africa and elsewhere, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC (a joint program run by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the International Union for Conservation of Nature) has been engaged in protecting endangered species since 1976.

TRAFFIC is tasked with sharing information and expertise to shine a light on the illegal trading of tiger parts, elephant ivory and rhino horn. In recent years, technology has allowed analysts across the globe to communicate and pinpoint the actions of criminal gangs, by sharing seizure information, sightings of illegal products in the marketplace, field intelligence, and other information.

Poachers don’t just target animals such as rhinos and elephants, large cats such as tigers are also targeted.

Using a mathematical forecasting model initially developed for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, computer scientist Thomas Snitch attempted to apply a method for predicting where roadside bombs would be planted, to the problem of where poachers would appear to hunt rhinos in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

The game reserve is so massive, about the size of Israel, that drones and rangers alone can’t be everywhere at once to monitor the park’s 1,000 rhinos. Utilising satellite imagery and an intricate data set of environmental information, Snitch created an algorithm to predict where the rhinos would be at any given time. Rangers could then use this information to plan their patrols around peak poaching hours.

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Seattle-based Vulcan has developed a similar solution to address the problem of poaching in Africa. Its Domain Awareness System (DAS) is an interactive map-based management system, which compiles GPS reports of animal movements, camera trap photos, radio and vehicle trackers, weather conditions, environmental data, and a host of other information, using it to create a live map.

Deployed in Lewa, part of a 16,000-square-mile conservation area called the Northern Rangelands Trust, all of the reserve’s animals, vehicles and anti-poaching teams can be represented by icons on one map. The software automatically flags up when, for example, elephants wander onto human settlements, and in one case it proved to be a useful tool in coordinating a response when two armed men entered the conservation area and attacked a village.

Vulcan is reportedly looking at how to deploy DAS to combat illegal fishing operations as well. Estimates suggest that 20 percent of the global seafood catch is illegally sourced – and the international community is turning to big data analysis in an attempt to curb it.

Oceana, a marine advocacy group, partnered with Google and SkyTruth to create the Global Fishing Watch platform, which tracks and processes data from shipboard automatic identification systems (AIS), measuring identity, location, speed, and direction. An algorithm then predicts likely fishing activity, giving authorities a real-time view. It has the potential to help authorities more efficiently clamp down on criminals and unregulated fishing.

In the UK, meanwhile, the RSPB is now using GPS tracking techniques on birds in an attempt to stop illegal poaching.

Many issues present threats to UK birds. These include: the loss of food sources, development projects disrupting habitats, and climate change. On top of this, Illegal poaching is a huge threat to endangered birds of prey, such as the Golden Eagle. The Hen Harrier is also under threat, with birds being killed on intensively-managed Grouse shooting estates.

In fact, Hen Harriers are on the brink of extinction – down to three nests in the UK. Citing this illegal killing as the chief factor in their decline, it’s one of the key drivers in the RSPB’s mission to utilise data analytics to help track and protect them.

The RSPB is using data analytics to get a picture of where bird species are going, how they behave, and what threats they face.

The process of monitoring and protecting birds is particularly difficult due to the large distances they travel. In order to do it successfully, the RSPB tags birds with devices that vary in size and sophistication, depending on the species of bird. Most of them are GPS-based and data is retrieved either by re-catching the bird or by transmitting the information by radio, satellite or mobile phone.

The RSPB observes a policy of fitting devices to birds that are no more than 2-3 percent of their body weight. So a small bird like a Migrating Warbler, which weighs 10g, can only carry a tracking device of roughly 0.3g. With devices this small, location is calculated by day length, which means their accuracy isn’t very high.

The tags the RSPB use to monitor birds vary in sophistication, from simple GPS trackers to multi-sensor devices.

IMAGE CREDIT: Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)

Larger birds, however, can carry more sophisticated devices – sensors which measure temperature, pressure, altitude, acceleration, and activity are being deployed to some species.

Once all of this information is captured, it’s combed, analysed and mapped in the RSPB’s own specialised Geographic Information System (GIS) called Merlin. This contains millions of data points for birds, sites and habitats, and provides a means to access a huge range of external datasets.

In the short term, the RSPB can use reports generated by Merlin to get a picture of where the birds are going, what they are doing, and what threats they are facing. In the longer term it can show if species are in decline, and even assess whether the reasons for that decline are due to migration, or because they are not doing very well in their wintering grounds.

All of this information can be used to advise land owners, site managers and governments. A key area where this comes to fruition is when tracking seabird habits and in the creation of Marine Protected Areas, which becomes relevant to planning applications for offshore wind farm developments.

For protected species, if data gathered can prove instances of illegal killing to law enforcement agencies, it can lead to prosecutions. Data analysis gives the RSPB a powerful tool in their drive to halt this practice and protect nature.

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