As the human population booms (7.6 billion as of December 2017), we’re seeing a mass extinction of other species taking place. There are many contributing factors; disease, urbanisation, and climate change to name a few. All of these are synonymous with humans and the devastation we’re causing to the planet.
Poaching is playing a huge part in this. According to a recent article in WWF magazine’s Spring Edition, the illegal ivory trade is the highest it’s been for 20 years. A staggering 20,000 African elephants are killed each year, that’s 55 a day. This means that more are being poached than are being born. Whilst steps are being made to combat the ivory trade by governments, it’s not just limited to poaching elephants for ivory. There are only around 3,800 tigers left in the wild compared to 60,000 a century ago. On average, 3 Rhinos are poached a day for their horns. One of the most shocking statistics of all is that there are a mere 70 Amur Leopards left in the wild, due to poaching for their skin and bones, and also the loss of habitat due to illegal logging.
Not only is poaching destroying species, but it has devastating effects on ecosystems and economies the world over. Biodiversity is so important in the conservation of our planet, and wiping out one species has detrimental effects on the natural order of things.
I struggle with the reasons why poaching still exists in this day and age. Of course, the main driver being profit. Driven by wealthy individuals that believe ivory trinkets and skin rugs are more suited to being in their houses than on the animals themselves that had to die to adorn their properties. Similarly, in many regions animals are killed for medicinal purposes. Since the 1500’s Rhino horn has been used in treating various illnesses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t actually work.
For years, many charities and conservationists have worked tirelessly to combat these issues both in the field and remotely using various approaches and means to do so. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, conservationists are now able to tackle these problems in a different way. Using this technology to get ahead of the poachers, we can now look to taking more preventative measures to poaching.
PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security) is a fantastic system doing just this. PAWS uses Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to assess data and predict poaching activity. Reservations and land where protected species live are often massive and too large to patrol the entirety of all the time, which means, unfortunately, poachers manage to enter onto and kill these innocent creatures where they should be most protected.
By inputting data collected previously on poaching activity, data on the local areas and patrols, it uses an algorithm to generate new patrol routes that will be most effective in combatting poaching activity and hopefully reduce the number of fatalities to wildlife.
These patrol routes and outcomes are then fed back into the system, to keep the data new and also update new routes to take.
The main aspect in PAWS’ model is Computational Game Theory. They designed a ranger v poacher game to help further their understanding of strategies and logic poachers may use through an AI simulation. Similar to the techniques used in games like online poker.
With this model, they can generate patrol routes that lead to where poaching may be more likely to take place next, in order to tackle the problem head-on and protect these endangered species.
The system has been used in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, where according to Reuters, rangers using this system discovered 10 antelope traps, elephant snares, and a ‘betterscore card than without such technical assistance.’ However, there are obstacles that PAWS must overcome, such as putting rangers into too close quarters with violent poachers, and also problems with internet and mobile signal that can prevent the real-time use of the software out in the field.
Regardless of these issues, PAWS is a fantastic way AI technology is being used to contribute to preserving the lives of endangered species, and will hopefully see wider scale adoption soon.
Can you think of any other projects using AI to help save endangered species?
Charlotte, Content and Social Media