Can Artificial Intelligence Help Pinch Poachers?
31 October 2019
Rhino protection efforts in Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (Ezemvelo) reserves received vital support this month with the launch of the Air Shepherd UAV project – a partnership between the Lindbergh Foundation, Peace Parks Foundation and Ezemvelo.
This project funds and coordinates an initial 14-month plan for the operational testing and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a valuable aerial support tool to assist counter-poaching teams on the ground.
As poachers become increasingly sophisticated, conservation agencies in turn have to level the playing field with technology that transcends human limitations and spatial challenges. Says Ezemvelo CEO, Dr David Mabunda: “Ezemvelo is excited about the recent launch of the Air Shepherd UAV project. It is my belief that to fight the scourge of rhino poaching, we need to be more innovative and never cease to investigate the potential of emerging technologies. Although there is no one method that will be the silver bullet that puts an end to poaching, UAVs usefully complement the multi-pronged counter-poaching strategies that Ezemvelo is already implementing. To succeed in this war, Ezemvelo depends on partnerships with various organisations that have time and means to assist in the development of new methods to fight poaching. Such partnerships are critical, as they enable Ezemvelo to redirect its resources to other areas of conservation, whilst our partners focus on coming up and piloting new strategies to fight this plague.”
The Air Shepherd operations will see a variety of aerial platforms flown in high risk poaching areas by qualified and licensed UAV pilots. The UAVs are fitted with cameras and sensors that deliver real-time data directly to a central command centre, where trained visual data analysts interpret the data – providing actionable intelligence to ranger forces.
UAVs can cover vast poaching hotspot areas silently and safely from the sky, using clear infrared and thermal imaging technology at night, which is when most incursions occur. Much of the value of proactive detection systems such as UAVs, though, lies in its capability to reduce the level of danger that rangers are exposed to. CEO of Peace Parks Foundation, Werner Myburgh, explains: “Whilst patrolling with very limited visibility at night, rangers are constantly subjected to the threat of wild animals and armed poachers. Through effective UAV aerial support, rangers can be guided directly to the threat and receive advanced warning of possible armed contact situations. This will prevent the unnecessary loss of human and animal life.”
Mr Myburgh adds: New technologies form an integral part of the future of conservation and we congratulate Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for their continued pioneering spirit to address the wildlife crime crisis. We welcome the support from the Lindbergh Foundation in this endeavour and appeal to the general public to join hands in initiatives that aim to save the rhino”