The world’s megafauna, especially in Africa, are undergoing range collapse and the extinction of populations, and those charged with protecting them face steep odds to combat severe poaching pressures. From 2007 to 2014, between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants were killed each year for their ivory, or in more stark terms, one elephant killed every 15 minutes. The pressure on the world’s rhino populations is even more intense, and tiger numbers, although rebounding in some parts of Asia, still face poacher’s snares and guns. Managers face a number of challenges in defending parks; reserves established to protect endangered megafauna are often vast, ranger patrols are spread thin and it can be difficult to gather intelligence data, and communications are poor or non-existent. This leaves little capacity to protect vanishing species, and presents an important question for conservationists and engineers:
How can we create affordable and efficient force multipliers that work in tandem with rangers to protect wildlife in harsh field conditions?
New technologies are available to address the poaching crisis, but most focus on approaches after the animals are already dead. LDF is supporting a new technology, TrailGuard, invented by Steve Gulick and meant to stop poachers before they kill. TrailGuard is designed to be a cryptic, remote camera sensor, providing a 24/7 electronic eyeball along known poacher trails. Once the camera senses movement and takes a picture, a computer unit takes over, using image recognition algorithms to look for humans in the image. If the computer algorithms detect a person or vehicle, the picture is relayed to the parks operations room by either GSM or a low-frequency radio network, where rapid response teams can be dispatched if the threat is real. The whole process takes minutes to complete and can work even in areas without reliable GSM coverage. Importantly, the images taken by TrailGuard can also be used to inform intelligence gathering and supplement informant networks with headshots of suspected poachers. Beyond the poaching of charismatic megafauna, the greatest threat to wildlife in the tropics is snaring. In the Serengeti, more than 100,000 wildebeest were caught in snares last year and in other parts of the tropics, the offtake, all illegal, is staggering. TrailGuards placed along snaring trails, after snare removal, can catch those who are stripping the wildlife out of the forests.
TrailGuard v1 is being deployed now in key parks in East Africa. However, there are still not enough cameras to go around, and the team at RESOLVE and Wildland Security is working with engineers at Valley Services Electronics and industry experts to update the design for low-volume production in California’s Bay Area. The first manufactured run will help scale the pilot testing to parks across Africa. The LDF grant is also helping to finance the development of an advanced artificial intelligence version of TrailGuard that is more compact and adds identification and real-time alerts for key wildlife species. The device, which is being developed in collaboration with a major tech company, will be aimed at raising the bar for camera trap technology for use in scientific studies, management of endangered species and those prone to conflict with people, and for citizen scientists around the world.