A DISAPPEARING SPECIES
In Africa’s conservation areas, the boom of a gunshot carries over ten miles across savannas, forests and wetlands. For rangers in these parks, where guns are banned in order to protect wildlife, that boom signifies death.
Typically, by the time a ranger team arrives at an incident, they find the elephant victim slaughtered; its ivory tusks cut away, body bloodied and left to decompose.
It takes about a month for an elephant carcass to decay to just bones, and in that time thousands more elephants, and rhinos across Africa's conservation areas will be killed by poachers. In fact, poachers kill 100 elephants daily – about one every 15 minutes.
That data, and the severity of the issue, how quickly the population was declining, was anecdotal until philanthropist Paul G. Allen and his team at Vulcan Inc. launched a massive, $7 million project to count Africa’s savanna elephant population. Allen, who carried a fondness for Africa and its gentle giants, had observed a lack of data about the species that was hindering efforts to preserve it.
Elephants declined 30% in just seven years, according to the Great Elephant Census
“During my time in Africa, I have seen the impacts of poaching and habitat loss on the continent’s elephant population,” Allen wrote in a letter. “It’s clear we need an immediate, effective, large-scale approach to conservation; otherwise, we risk elephants disappearing from the continent for good.”
The first step was to collect comprehensive data, since the most recent wide-scale elephant census had taken place back in the 1970s. In 2014, Allen’s began the pan-African study, using aerial surveys of hundreds of thousands of square miles of wildlife parks and conservation areas to provide the most accurate and up-to-date data about the African elephant population. The final results showed a 30 percent decline of the populations between 2007 and 2014, mainly due to poaching. Only an estimated 352,271 remained.
BUILDING A DATA HUB
With numbers illustrating the scale of the crisis, the need for anti-poaching technology in the field became clearer.
Allen asked Ted Schmitt, a long-time Vulcan business developer, what needed to be created. And Schmitt headed to the field to research the needs of the park managers.
“The first thing people from the parks said was, even with the amount of data they have, they were feeling overwhelmed by it and couldn’t use it effectively,” Schmitt said.
He noticed many operations rooms employed five different screens, which were often impossible to keep eyes on. Even when officials could monitor the information, they found it difficult to visualize patterns within separate data sets. This disconnect, in turn, presented a challenge for sites to maintain a high level of security on the ground — a major key in wildlife protection.
To provide easy visualization of activity within the park, and ultimately mitigate the impact and success of poachers, the team created a one-stop data hub, which integrates information from digital radios, animal collars and vehicle tracking, all of which were previously housed on separate devices. The platform also adds ranger observations such as snare traps, animal carcasses and footsteps. Initially described as the domain awareness system (DAS) it is now being implemented as EarthRanger.
TRACKING AN ELEPHANT
An elephant is collared to help monitor its movement
Chris Jones, an EarthRanger developer, followed the data from Seattle. He toggled the cursor back and forth at the bottom of his computer screen, and icons populated a map. Left, they disappeared, right, they speckled an area of digitized land — a conservation area in Africa — until nearly the whole map was covered in little symbols and colorful lines, which represented elephants and their footpath over the past month. Jones clicked on one of the elephant icons and the rest disappeared.
“Look,” he said. “This one went all the way out to the water.”
Using the EarthRanger software, he also noticed that the same elephant recently passed by a snare, a common wire trap set by poachers.
Law enforcement officials in African parks utilize this type of information to protect elephants and other vulnerable species from poaching threats.
With data centralized in one real-time visualization platform, officials and rangers have the ability to provide quicker response. Law enforcement officials can track their ranger teams through GPS powered walkie-talkies and accurately direct them to the location of suspicious activity. Most importantly, the comprehensive visualization allows officials to track patterns that inform their patrol deployments – positioning themselves a step ahead of poachers, decreasing the likelihood of hearing a gunshot, and losing an animal.
“EarthRanger technology allows you to track where and when incidents are happening over time in order to draw trends,” said Eric Schmidt, executive director and founding partner of Wildlife Protection Solutions, a non-profit that uses technology to conserve endangered species. “If you identify a series of active hotspots in a given area, you can determine a need to redeploy additional technology resources into this area to make for stronger protection.”
Ranger patrols play a key, if not the most significant, role in preventing poachers from infiltrating a site, said Pawan Nrisimha, EarthRanger product manager. So, the EarthRanger team focused on providing relevant data to inform protection strategies.
“At the end of the day, if you get that intelligence, and have better patrols, snaring reduces,” he said.
THE PRICE OF POACHING
Most poaching incidents occur during the rainy season, so high frequency of information and data analysis are vital to wildlife protection. The heavy rain, flooding and deep mud, means rangers often struggle to make it into the field for regular patrols. Driving through the mud is nearly impossible for most four-wheel vehicles. But poachers use motorbikes that can maneuver through the mud.
Poachers typically find shelter and camp out for the duration of the season, said Shana Tischler, Vulcan’s strategy manager for ivory trafficking. One piece of ivory is worth the stay.
In 2017, the wholesale price of ivory was $329 per pound – making each individual tusk worth an average of $50,000. Though the cost of ivory dropped significantly since its peak in 2014, one successful elephant poach can provide an African family financial stability for a year.
Poaching events are just the beginning of a larger story, Tischler said. Wildlife trafficking begins immediately following the incident.
“It’s a supply chain,” she said. “And there hasn’t been technology that has been able to rally everyone together and be at the hub of that and attack it from all sides. There hasn’t been technology that is able to shine a light on the actual poaching incident and what led up to it.”
EarthRanger aims to fill that data gap – and not just for elephants. The threat of poaching spans beyond them — a handful of large game animals face the risk of extinction due to illicit activity. At most parks, EarthRanger tracks data from animals like lions, cheetah and rhinos, among others, and the software has capacity to include additional collared animals as necessary.
ELEPHANTS AND BEYOND
EarthRanger aggregates all the data, from eyewitness accounts, to drone video, to collared wildlife data.
The EarthRanger team created the platform as a response to the elephant population decline, but the technology is at its essence a domain awareness system, which has many potential use cases. Its potential is not limited to wildlife – along with security, it can span ecological monitoring and community building.
The team aims to expand its reach to feature this three-pronged approach. Security, ecological monitoring and community building each take on their own value in wildlife preservation efforts, and the platform will incorporate data from all areas in order to create a holistic understanding of each site.
Ecological monitoring, which betters scientists understanding of the ecosystem’s health, helps answer questions like, “How should we respond in the case of a drought?” and “What are the preconditions if we want to introduce rhinos?”
The community focus addresses human-wildlife conflict. For example, herds of animals often eat or trample fields of produce, and farmers respond violently in retaliation. Reports of education will be input in EarthRanger, and analyzed in terms of how public programming impacts poaching numbers.
With multiple data pools to draw from, park managers and officials will have access to a comprehensive picture of their area – an understanding of poaching activity, and species interaction with one another and surrounding communities.
For today, the focus lies on elephants.
“Through high-quality science and data we will conquer the insurmountable and help to change the future of Africa,” Allen said as the Great Elephant Census began. “We’re going to save the elephants.”
Learn more at earthranger.com.