Predicting wildlife poaching

Using animals to prevent poaching

Photography: Shutterstock

The fight against poaching in African wildlife reserves has all of the characteristics of a war. Everyone who gets involved does so literally at the risk of losing their lives. Scientists at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) think that they can make an important contribution to preventing poaching by using a method that predicts crime before it occurs and uses the help of animals.

WHY THIS RESEARCH?

The survival of animal species is under threat and the lives of rangers endangered by large-scale organised poaching.

IMPACT

Using data and algorithms from nature to prevent the killing of animals rather than looking for the perpetrators after the crime is committed.

Herbert Prins, professor in Resource Ecology at WUR, is helping deploy a clever and non-violent strategy to suppress the international syndicates behind organised poaching. Many of these syndicates have roots in China and Vietnam, where making traditional medicine from things like rhinoceros horn is big business.

‘We have discovered algorithms that explain the flight behaviour of wild animals’

“Poachers are willing to go to great lengths kill a rhinoceros as a horn sells for 80,000 euros per kilo and weighs at least four kilos,” says Prins. “Until now, prevention has consisted mainly of tracking down the poachers and has often culminated in a bloody confrontation with them. I see this as a fundamentally wrong approach. The criminals running the show from the shadows can easily replace the poor wretches who shoot the animals. In addition, the perpetrators are often caught only after the crime’s been committed. I think we would do better to use the data that the animals in the wildlife reserves themselves provide to predict where poachers will be working. That lets us take preventive action before it is too late.”

Duration

5 years

Partners

Pervasive Systems Group (UT), Analysis and Dynamical Systems Group (LEI), Astron Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Square Kilometer Array (South Africa), University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), Kenya Wildlife Service (Kenya)

Where

the Netherlands

Funds needed

€4,725,000
€1,000,000 has already been made available

Wildebeests with GPS trackers. Photo: Jasper Eikelboom

The core of the project run by Prins and his colleagues is in the analysis of animal behaviour. This is followed in real time thanks to the sensors attached to animals like antelopes and other herd animals. “Animals often hear and sense danger at an early stage, and this is information we can use. We have attached sensors to animals in the Welgevonden reserve in South Africa and have collected two years of data about their behaviour.”

Wild animal in Welgevonden reserve gets GPS tracker. Photo: Jasper Eikelboom

“Using fake poachers, we have gradually discovered the algorithms that underlie the excitability and flight behaviour of the wild animals. This information enables us to detect danger and send people to at-risk locations in the park. Having proven that the concept works we wish to organise this locally everywhere in Africa. The idea is to use the signals to send a drone to places where we suspect poachers are active: not a normal drone as that frightens the animals but a silent one resembling an eagle, with an optical and infrared system and image recognition.”


“We would station this drone above the location where we detected panic among the animals. A team of rangers can intervene within twenty minutes if poachers are detected, which is usually enough time to stop them. This project adds WUR’s knowledge and analytical power to practical actions on location.”

This video by IBM shows how technology can help predict threats and combat the poaching of endangered rhinos at Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa, with the intent to expand the solution to other reserves in future.

In the conceptual phase, Prins has worked closely with mathematicians and other experts from Dutch and African institutes. The local telecom provider MTN sees to it that the animals’ sensors are coupled to a so-called ‘LoRa’ network that is difficult to tap and uses very little energy.


“We now want to upscale and test our concept in larger areas, eventually even in the well-known Kruger National Park, where the survival of the rhinoceros population is seriously threatened. Ways to finance this upscaling are required, including funding for expensive sensors, drones, further data analysis and local infrastructure to facilitate the work of rangers. All are essential to fight against the extinction of wild animals and prevent suffering among animals and people. This is what motivates me.”

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PROF. HERBERT PRINS

Position

Professor in Resource Ecology, Wageningen University & Research

Expertise

Animal ecology, Ecology, Natural resources, Tropical Africa, the Tropics, Plant-animal interactions, Plant-herbivore relations, Savannahs, Grazing

Photo: Gea Hogeveen

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