Dr Thomas Snitch, Senior Professor, Institute of Advanced Computer Studies, University of Maryland shares his insight on how satellites, algorithms and UAVs are used to target poachers in Africa
The global poaching situation has reached crisis proportions. In India, 17 tigers have been killed by poachers since January, 2015 while estimates suggest that 66 tigers were poached in 2014. Even leopards — with 116 killed in 2014 in India — have become the target of poachers. Most disturbingly, in 2014 about 1215 rhinos were killed in South Africa for their horns, which end up in Vietnam as purported cures for cancer and as enhancers of virility. Similarly, it is estimated that over 30,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year for their ivory that was turned into bracelets and trinkets in China. To put that in perspective, the world loses three rhinos a day and an elephant
every 15 minutes. Simply stated, about 100 elephants are slaughtered every day, and the brutal fact is that is this is an unsustainable situation.
Technology comes In
In the past 10 years, the poaching of these and other animals, as well as rare plants, has increased exponentially, primarily because it has become one of the most lucrative criminal businesses on the planet. Rhino horns can fetch $50,000 per kilogram,which costs more than any illegal narcotic. A pair of elephant tusks may fetch about $125,000. Most of these illegal activities are run by Asian criminal syndicates. There are well founded beliefs that some of the proceeds from this illegal activity are being funnelled into political extremists in Africa. Moreover, in most nations around the world, the criminal penalties for possession of rhino horn or elephants tusks are minimal. To combat poaching in Africa and Asia, a team at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Studies teamed up with the Lindbergh Foundation to create the Air Shepherd initiative. The one-of-its-kind effort is created to expand anti-poaching programmes across Southern Africa. Very high resolution satellite imagery is used to provide extremely detailed maps of the topography of an area. A wide array of data, with many different variables, is collected and overlaid on the imagery. By using algorithms, an analytical model is devised on how animals, poachers, and rangers move simultaneously through space and time.
A step ahead
The real game changer is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones, which began flying in Africa since May, 2013. These drones have become shepherds in the air, hence the name. Technology can be a wonderful tool, but it must give the right solution for a particular problem. Unfortunately, this has not been the case of attacking poaching in Africa and Asia. Complex engineering solutions that have worked for the US military in Afghanistan may not necessarily work in the African bush, at night, searching for poachers.
Now, the most challenging question arises — how UAVs can be used in Africa and when and where to fly them? There is a need to constantly remind ourselves that UAVs are tools and nothing more. They are not the proverbial silver bullet.
Africa is too big to be tapped simply launching drones into the night sky with the hope of spotting rhinos or poachers – this is where the analytical models come into play. With accuracies near 90% certainty, it can be detected where the rhinos are likely to be on a particular night. At the same time, by mathematically recreating the environment when previous poachings have occurred, we have a very good idea of when and where poachers are likely to strike. Bysimply looking for patterns of behaviour of both animals and poachers, this knowledge can be leveraged in ways to counteract any sort of illegal activity.
Tapping the scene
There is no need of finding poachers; only the whereabouts of rhinos are enough. Since a large proportion of poaching occurs on nights around a full moon, it makes more sense because poachers can easily track the prey. In one area where the team had months of experience and data, it was discovered that nearly every poaching, of any animal including those destined for the bush meat trade, occurred with 160 metres of a paved road. Again, the analysis is quite simple – the poachers are driving the perimeter of the park in the late afternoon and spotting animals near the park fence. After sundown, the poachers return to the specific site, kill the animal and drive away.
The key is that the satellites, the analytics and math, and the UAVs are integrated into a total solutions package. With the knowledge of behavioural patterns, an additional tool is added. The analytical model tells precisely where the rangers should be deployed on a specific night, so that they can be in front of the rhinos and can intercept the poachers before they reach the target animal.
On the first UAV flight in South Africa, the UAV flew over the pre-determined spot and immediately found a female rhino and her calf. The animals were inside the reserve’s fence, but close to a major road. The drone was circled over the animals. Three individuals tried climbing the fence to kill the rhinos. the rangers, who had been pre-deployed in the area, arrested three poachers in under three minutes. This exercise has been repeated dozens of times over the past 20 months.
Thus, the most critical issue is not how far or how long a UAV can fly, but how fast can a ranger be moved in the bush at night, to affect a successful intercept. The UAVs pick up the poachers at least two kilometres from the rhinos, so in about 45 minutes authorities can move to the optimal position.
There are proof of concept and proof on the ground that UAVs can make a tremendous difference. The bad news is that poachers are moving to regions where such UAVs are not operating. To really address the challenges of poaching in Africa, nations in southern Africa need to be willing to test these solutions packages in their most critically endangered areas. The successful answer lies in the combination of satellites, great math, properly positioned rangers and UAVS with precise flight paths. By raising funds necessary to grow the use of this program across Africa and Asia, Air Shepherd’s efforts can beat the poachers and save animals around the world. There is no time to waste.