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Technology for Good: How Networking Saves Big Cats

Photo credit: J. Goodrich

By Camilla Fritze
Co-authored by Paula Reinman

Close your eyes and think of a jungle: the noises, the smells and the sounds. Think of the most majestic and inspirational creature in that jungle. What comes to mind? For many, the tiger is the embodiment of this wilderness.

Numbering just 3900, these iconic cats are now on the verge of extinction. Because poaching is the tigers’ key existential threat, technology is a critical tool in securing and protecting the last wild tiger populations.

At the forefront of the initiative to use technology for animal conservation is Panthera, the only organization dedicated exclusively to conserving the world’s wild cats and their ecosystems. Camilla Fritze, great-granddaughter of Guglielmo Marconi, Marconi Society board member, and a wildlife conservationist at Panthera, is spearheading this initiative.

A conservation biologist by training, Camilla comes from a family of scientists. Her dad is an astrophysicist, and, of course, her great-grandfather won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work on long distance radio transmission. As much as she loves the science, though, Camilla is proud of the Marconi Society’s focus on celebrating communication, entrepreneurship and commercialization. Her work using technology to save tigers combines these interests.

Saving Tigers: Why Now, Why Ever?

Poaching has become a $20B/year business, driven largely by an expanding middle class in Asia that demands animal products including skins, bones, teeth and organs, in the case of tigers. On our watch, elephants, rhinos and many of the big cats are disappearing from national parks and the world’s last wild places. This impact is magnified because, as an umbrella species, these animals shape the landscapes they inhabit by preserving the food web for animals and humans alike, and the structure and ecological processes on which all life on earth depends.

The criminal networks directing poaching are using increasingly sophisticated techniques and weapons, even resorting to helicopters, night vision equipment, and satellite communications in certain areas (i.e. rhino poaching in southern Africa). This trade threatens entire ecosystems and places already vulnerable human communities in even greater danger.

According to Global Conservation, over 1,000 park rangers have been killed on duty over the past 10 years, and 80% of them were killed by commercial poachers and armed militia groups.

Tigers are particularly vulnerable to poaching. Despite extensive habitat loss in the most densely populated regions of the world, there are over one million km² of potential tiger habitat left in Asia, but the majority of habitat is vacant due to the killing of tigers and their prey. These vast areas of unoccupied habitat are perhaps the greatest indicator of the magnitude of the poaching problem. The critical solution to protecting tigers, therefore, is anti-poaching. “The habitat exists,” according to Fritze. “Our priority is to secure the last populations of big cats before it is too late. Technology can be a game changer by allowing us to do more with less. We’re using wireless communications to a different end than traditional applications.”

Picture a protected area in the typical Asian or African country. It is likely either very remote, extremely rugged, or both. The park guards tasked with anti-poaching are often under-resourced, lacking sufficient budgets, manpower and infrastructure to do their job effectively and safely. Conservationists need to find solutions that work within these realities and strategically increase the capacity of rangers to respond to and prevent poaching. This is where technology comes in.

The PoacherCam: Using Networks to Protect Tigers

Thanks to innovations that make cameras easy to use, low cost and durable, Panthera has designed a remote wildlife security camera, called the PoacherCam, that transfers data over cellular and satellite networks to detect poaching threats in real time.

The PoacherCam is Panthera’s 6th generation camera that builds upon years of in-house research and development in remote cameras for wildlife monitoring. Camera trapping is a widely used, non-invasive method to monitor wild cat populations. For example, when a tiger triggers the motion sensor on a camera trap, its stripe pattern, similar to a human fingerprint, is logged and added to a database of known patterns. This allows biologists to identify an individual animal and track its survival over years.

Panthera’s latest generation of remote cameras adds protection to the equation. The PoacherCam features two innovations. The first is a human detection algorithm that enables the camera to differentiate between humans and animals. This ensures that any photo alert sent by the camera is indeed a human, rather than a falling leaf or passing animal, and thus worthy of a response.

The second innovation is an embedded M2M module that transfers data over existing cellular networks with backhaul over a satellite Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) link. Once triggered, PoacherCams transfer an alert message with an attached image, in real time, to an online web server and send data to the email inbox of a designated recipient, such as an anti-poaching tasking officer. Anti-poaching response teams can mount an immediate and targeted response to a potential poaching threat, giving teams a potentially life-saving tactical advantage.

Given that GSM coverage is patchy in most of world’s protected areas, Panthera is exploring alternate methods of networking such as long range wifi, private GSM and satellite. PoacherCams are currently deployed at the edge of parks and at known access points where GSM can be accessed.

Join the Effort to Protect Tigers

We can each play a part in saving tigers and the last wild places.

  • Lend your expertise to Panthera’s conservation technology unit by helping us find alternative networking systems for connecting remote areas in the absence of native GSM, for instance long range wifi, private GSM, satellite uplinks, etc.
  • Support an anti-poaching team in one of Panthera’s tiger conservation sites by providing funds for equipment, training and technology. Or sign your company up for corporate giving. Details on how to donate to Panthera: https://www.panthera.org/donate.
  • Connect Panthera’s conservation technology unit to interested companies and investors in order to scale the PoacherCam technology globally and combat poaching of all species.

There has been so much published about the benefits of our connected world, from providing healthcare to people in remote areas to being about to download an HD movie in a minute. By providing safe and intelligent communications for police and park rangers, we can use our connected world and the internet of things to save some of the world’s most majestic animals, to impact the ecosystem and make the world safer.