17 April 2024

Sensing a threat

| The European |

Along the western banks of Zambia’s Itezhi-Tezhi lake, some unusual new structures are being erected. This man-made lake, which borders the Kafue National Park, has long been used for night-fishing by locals from the towns and villages outside the reserve. It also provides a waterhole for other inhabitants of the region – including elephants.

And this can be a problem. Poachers regularly cross the lake by the cover of night, posing as fishermen and going undetected by the park’s rangers. They disembark in the nature reserve before killing elephants for their tusks and slip away into the night. But that may be about to change.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in collaboration with CISCO, the software company, are currently in the process of installing high-powered sensor technology on structures along the shores of the Itezhi-Tezhi – similar installations are already up and running at the Nakuru National Park in Kenya. The sensors include FLIR long-range night vision cameras which have thermal imaging capacity that can detect movement up to 3 km away. These will be able to alert rangers of any suspicious movements on the lake and tell them exactly where they’re taking place.

Colby Loucks, who leads WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project, explains: “The technology will provide rangers with information they’ve never had before, helping them adapt their tactics to prevent poaching.”

A ranger using FLIR cameras to search for poachers

Cheaper, more effective technology

Recent developments in sensor hardware and software which is linked to the internet has seen a boom in recent years. These technologies come under the umbrella term Internet of Things (IoT), which essentially covers all sorts of heat, sound and movement sensors which are wired up to digitally talk to one another. The IoT has so far mainly been used in the urban environment – to help with anything from monitoring pollution to controlling streetlights. But there is also a growing movement of ecologists and technologists using the IoT in the wild.

From sensors recording the GPS locations of animals to noise recorders rigged up in rainforest trees that listen out for chainsaws involved in illegal logging, these new technologies are showing potential for protecting the natural world. And the boom in IoT technologies has significantly reduced the costs of using these tools, compared to the kinds of animal collars and recording technology that has come before.

For example, Alasdair Davies, founder of the Arribada Initiative, has run several projects which have helped test and prove this kind of technology. On the island of Principe, off the west coast of Africa, he and a team of conservationists were able to use low-cost tags attached to sea-turtles which emitted GPS signals. In the past, such a collar would have cost upwards of $300. “Today’s tags are so cheap and accessible, we could potentially tag hundreds of turtles,” Mr Davies explains.
Once the creatures are tagged, conservationists can then collect much more accurate information about wildlife behaviour. This could feed into policy recommendations – banning cargo ships from travelling through specific locations at certain times of year, for example, or using real-time location information to stop tourists visiting specific beaches during the turtles’ nesting season.

Alasdair Davies

And there are plenty of other exciting projects going on around the world using IoT. Mr Loucks of the WWF describes how IoT can be used to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Elephants often come into conflict with farmers when they destroy their crops. But if wild elephants could be tagged with sensors, their location could be sent out to villagers who would then be warned that an elephant was on the move nearby. They could then put into place measures to deter the animal – before any serious conflict occurs.

Meanwhile, Vulcan Technologies, led by ex-Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has created software called Domain Awareness System – which collates information from a whole range of sensors and technology in the field. The platform uses a sophisticated algorithm to predict where and when poachers might strike next and presents this on a dashboard in a central command – allowing rangers to act first and drive off poachers.

One step at a time

There’s no doubt that the IoT offers enormous potential for protecting the natural world. But it has its drawbacks. Dr Chris Sandbrook, a political ecologist at the University of Cambridge underlines the risks of heading blindly into a new era of conservation technology: “There’s certainly a danger that if this kind of technology is deployed in a way that is not sensitive to local people, it will only serve to create hostility towards conservationists and their projects.” Faced with camera traps watching their every movement, drones in the sky and heat sensors monitoring their every move, this kind of technology could understandably cause resentment – and potentially be destroyed.

Dr Sandbrook also warns against naively installing sensors in protected areas or even on at-risk creatures. A system which is not encrypted, or only has weak protections against hacking, could literally give poachers a free ride: “The gangs who smuggle ivory and other poached animal parts are professional and determined businesses. They will quite happily pay hackers to break into IT systems which conservationists may be using and retrieve real-time data on the whereabouts of animals.”

And there are also practical issues to contend with too. Mr Loucks describes how the realities of the field often don’t quite match up to the idea on the drawing board: “In one of our first projects using long distance sensors in Kenya we had designed a sophisticated, rugged tool for monitoring wildlife in a nature reserve. We had built a pole which was about 10 metres tall which had a thermal camera on top that could provide 24-hour, monitoring of the area. To keep it powered, we had installed solar panels on top and these charged a battery at the base of the monitor which kept the camera running.”
The system was set up and ready to go, yet within weeks the camera was out of order – and not because of any technical errors. Instead, “it was baboons,” Mr Loucks explains. “They had climbed up the pole and torn apart the solar panels and thrown them to the ground – it was a problem we could just not predict.”

Arribada Initative technology at work in the rainforests

Powering change

Yet, IoT is widely hailed as an exciting step forward by the conservation community. Dr Sandbrook believes that in a traditionally resource-poor sector, the introduction of new tools and technology is always welcome.

Mr Loucks also points to the innovation in the sector that is helping overcome some of the difficulties. WWF launched a platform called WildLabs.net in 2015 with support from Google and ARM. The platform helps technologists and ecologists reach out to one another and collaborate on projects in a seamless manner.

Mr Davies is currently using WildLabs.net to work on the problem of battery-powered sensors running out of energy. IoT sensors in the rainforest must use batteries because low light levels below the canopy render solar panels ineffective. But batteries run out fast and are highly labour-intensive to replace. And so his current research is looking into the use of microbial fuel cells. This is a technology which can literally tap into trees as a source of very low-voltage electricity to keep sensors running. By using WildLabs.net, he hopes to attract expertise from across the conservation spectrum (and the world) to help improve and scale up existing prototypes in a way that would have been near impossible in the past.

And the innovation doesn’t always need to be high-tech. After discovering it was baboons that were destroying WWF’s monitoring stations in Kenya, Mr Loucks explains that local field-workers found a solution to stop the baboons getting up to their monkey business: greasing the poles with engine oil.

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