Ivory Crush 2015

I am so incredibly angry and disappointed in myself for not making it to this monumental event today. I should be there – to watch one ton of elephant ivory, trinkets and carvings be crushed and pulverized, to take a stand for elephant poaching, and to give myself a bit of piece of mind that I would be watching some of the very same pieces of ivory I saw in store windows in my hometown smashed to smithereens.

But, I’m not there. I am an idiot. I can only hope that there will be thousands of others there instead, to do the right thing and lend their support. You can watch it on a webcam: http://original.livestream.com/usfws

And you can read about it here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150618-times-square-ivory-crush-elephants-poaching-conservation/

or here: http://www.newsweek.com/government-crush-1-ton-ivory-times-square-343155

I truly hope this raises awareness and sends a message.

Trafficking Jam

Tons of confiscated illegal ivory displayed in February 2014 in Paris. Officials in France crushed the contraband, worth an estimated $1.4 million. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

This is a great article on wildlife forensics that Weather.com put together. They interviewed me several times (it’s amazing how all of the talking gets whittled down) and the author found me through this blog! This is a huge article with beautiful pictures and quotes by many of the same people I am always “bumping into” (more on this later) and I am really excited about it. Just shows how small this field really is. But the author, Michele Berger, really dove headfirst into the issues and doesn’t shy away from any of the hard facts. Thanks, Michele, for the fantastic article and for including me.


Drones Help Rangers Fight Poachers

As a huge geek, I love it when novel technological concepts can be applied to conservation crises. Read on for a description of how drones are being used to fight wildlife crime…

rhino poaching

Visitors to Kruger National Park wait for a rhino to cross the road. Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

Article courtesy of Thomas Snitch, visiting professor in advanced computer studies at the University of Maryland.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa for their horns, which end up in Asia as supposed cures for a variety of ailments. An estimated 30,000 African elephants were slaughtered last year for their tusks to be turned into trinkets. The world loses three rhinos a day and an elephant every 15 minutes. Simply stated, this is an unsustainable situation.

Our team at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies has created a new multifaceted approach to combat poaching in Africa and Asia. We devise analytical models of how animals, poachers, and rangers simultaneously move through space and time by combining high resolution satellite imagery with loads of big data—everything from moon phases, to weather, to previous poaching locations, to info from rhinos’ satellite ankle trackers—and then applying our own algorithms. We can predict where the key players are likely to be, so we can get smart about where to deploy rangers to best protect animals and thwart poachers.

The real game changer is our use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which we have been flying in Africa since May 2013. We’ve found that drones, combined with other more established technology tools, can greatly reduce poaching in those areas where rangers on the ground are at the ready to use our data.

In the past 10 years, the poaching of elephants and rhinos has increased exponentially, primarily because it’s a very lucrative criminal business. Rhino horns can fetch more than $500,000 or more than $50,000 per kilogram—more than the cost of any illegal narcotic—and a pair of elephant tusks can reach $125,000. Most of these illegal activities are run by Asian criminal syndicates, and there are well-founded beliefs that some of these proceeds are being funneled to political extremists in Africa.

Technology is a marvelous tool, but it must be the right solution for a particular problem. Engineering solutions that might work with the U.S. military looking for people planting improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan will not necessarily work in the African bush, at night, searching for poachers. The most challenging question about how UAVs are used in Africa is when and where to fly them.


The drone is watching. Courtesy of Thomas Snitch

Africa is too big to be simply launching small drones into the night sky with the hope of spotting rhinos or poachers by chance. This is where the analytical models come into play. Based on our models, we know, with near 90 percent certainty, where rhinos are likely to be on a particular night between 6:30 and 8:00, prime time for killings. At the same time, by mathematically recreating the environment when previous poachings have occurred, we have a very good idea of when and where poachers are likely to strike.

We don’t have to find poachers, we just need to know where the rhinos are likely to be.

For example, a large proportion of poachings occur on the days around a full moon; it makes sense since that’s when poachers can easily see their prey. In one area where we have months of experience, we discovered that nearly every poaching occurred within 160 meters of a road. It’s simple. The poachers are driving the perimeter of the park in the late afternoon, spotting animals near the park fence; they return just after sundown, kill the animal, and drive away. We pile on the data, and the algorithms do the rest.

The key is that the satellites, the analytics and math, and the UAVs are integrated into a solutions package. We crunch the data, and the model tells us precisely where we should deploy our rangers on any specific night so they will be in front of the rhinos and can intercept the poachers before they reach the target animal. After all, there’s no value in rangers patrolling parts of the park that these animals are unlikely to ever visit. Consider that South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the size of the state of New Jersey. Like a bank robber who robs banks because that’s where the money is, we want our rangers to be near the rhinos because that’s where the poaching is.

On our first UAV flight in South Africa, the UAV flew to our pre-determined spot and immediately found a female rhino and her calf; they were within 30 meters of a major road. We decided to circle the drone over the rhinos, and within minutes a vehicle stopped at the park’s fence. Three individuals exited the car and began to climb the fence to kill the rhinos. Our rangers had been pre-deployed to the area; they arrested the three poachers in less than three minutes. This episode has been repeated dozens of times over the past 20 months.

The most critical issue is not how far or how long a UAV can fly but how fast a ranger can be moved, in the bush at night, to successfully intercept poachers. The UAVs are simply our eyes in the night sky. Watching their live infrared video streams, we move our rangers as if they were chess pieces. Even with great math, we have some variance, and that means we might be 200 meters off a perfect positioning. The UAVs can see poachers at least 2 kilometers from the rhinos. So we have 45 minutes to move our people into the most optimal position, based on our real-world trials of how quickly they can move through the bush at night.

rhino poaching

A forensic team from Kruger National Park gathers evidence at the site of the killing of two rhinos, a male and a female, Dec. 8, 2014. Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

We’ve had hundreds of night flights with more than 3,000 flight hours in the past 20 months, and here is what we’ve learned. First, on the first few days after we begin operating in a new area, we arrest a number of poachers, and they’re being prosecuted to the fullest extent of local laws.

Second, our models are heuristic in that they are constantly learning and self-correcting, on the lookout for changes in the patterns they’ve identified. This is critical since poachers will try to change their behavior once they learn that they are at an extremely high risk of apprehension. The sheer number of animals being killed shows us that, up until the UAVs take to the air, most poachers have been able to operate with impunity.

The most important finding is that in every area where we have put our solutions package to work and the UAVs are flying, poaching stops with five to seven days. Period—it stops. Tonight we are flying in a very challenging area in southern Africa—we don’t identify our flight operations so as not to alert the poachers—and over the past 90 days, there has not been one single poaching incident. Four months ago, this region was losing several rhinos a week.

The good news is that we have proof of concept and proof on the ground that UAVs can make a tremendous difference. The bad news is that the poachers are moving to regions where we are not operating. To really address the challenges of poaching in the region, all the nations in southern Africa should be willing at least to test our system in their most critically endangered areas.

Our solution to the poaching problem lies in the combination of satellite monitoring, great math, properly positioned rangers, and UAVs flying precise flight paths. It works.

New Wildlife Forensic Sciences Program!

The Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine has announced a new Graduate Certificate Program in Wildlife Forensic Sciences. This program is designed for wildlife conservation officers, fish and game officials, law enforcement officers, forensic investigators, and academic students in wildlife ecology and conservation, although anyone with an interest in these courses can take them.

On completion of the 9-credit certificate program, students will receive a University of Florida Certificate in Wildlife Forensic Sciences. This certificate program is open to appropriately qualified local, national, and international students.

And guess what? It’s my program! I’ve been busy getting the courses together for some time now. I’m very excited that registration is open and that the classes will begin in January… hopefully this is the beginning of some great things. This Thanksgiving, I’m happy for this new opportunity!

Stay tuned for updates.

Check out the program and register for courses here: http://wildlife.forensics.med.ufl.edu/

Happy World Elephant Day!

Photo by San Diego Zoo

In case you weren’t aware, today is the first ever World Elephant Day.

You can read about it here: http://worldelephantday.org/ – they have all kinds of information on the site.

We have a real problem. Demand for ivory has skyrocketed, and poaching is at an all-time high. I fear the extinction of elephants is imminent – so close, in fact, that I might see it happen in my lifetime.

I’ve posted a video below that brought me to tears this morning. It is graphic but is an honest portrayal of what recently happened in Cameroon – the slaughter of over 300 elephants for their tusks.

Please help me fight this battle. I’m not willing to lose these amazing animals to greed and apathy. Watch and spread the word.


The Reasons

Sometimes it’s so hard to do this job. Some days are so bad I can’t sleep. The horrible things I see every day – the cruelty, the neglect, the lack of empathy, the ignorance, the disregard for life – make me wonder if I can keep my sanity. I wrote about all of this before, in this post. But then I do what I did tonight. I walk through the shelter and look. Really look.

At the faces. At the names. I make eye contact. I reach through the cages and scratch them. I talk to them. I watch their reactions. And I smile again.

Yes, it’s sad seeing them like this, behind bars and glass. But I know their stories. I know where they came from. In some cases I’ve been to where they’ve come from and seen just how bad it was. Some of them I watched hobble in on the end of an officer’s leash, barely alive, skin and bones, starving, beaten, left out like trash. But then I see them after treatment, after plenty of medicine and food and hugs, and they are happy. And it feels a little bit better.

They are the reasons I keep doing this. The tears I cry when no one is looking are for them. I try to remember them all. Like Sparkle, who I wrote about here. Sometimes I feel that I am the only one who will remember them when they are gone, and it is my mission to do it. They all matter. They shouldn’t be forgotten.

When I wonder if I made the right choices in life, as I discussed in my last post, I can pull out their pictures in my mind. This is not an easy life, or one that will make me rich, or powerful, or bring me admiration. But it’s one I can be proud of. I may not be able to change the world, but I can do what I can. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like enough. But I know that I helped change the world for some of them. And for right now, that’s okay.

These are the photos I snapped tonight. I will remember. Will you?

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Weighing My Options and Making Decisions

Over the past month I have faced a gut-wrenching career choice. It is the reason I’ve been so out of touch with this site, and for that I apologize. But I’ve finally reached a decision and feel ready to write about it.

Because of a contact I made at a forensics conference this year, I was offered a position at the company for which he works. For privacy purposes I won’t disclose the name, but suffice it to say it is one of the world’s most impressive forensic labs, and that is no exaggeration. It was an amazing opportunity, and one that I thought I would never have. And the salary matched the prestige of the position I was offered – the whole package was mind-blowing. I was honored and more than a little flattered. I almost accepted.

Perhaps a more career savvy person would have jumped at the chance. Perhaps I should have. But I chose to remain where I am, with a significantly lower salary, much less stature and prominence, and a very shaky future. Why? Because of the things I consider important.

For some, money and stature are the ultimate career goals. But for me they have never been as important as doing something I am passionate about and personally invested in. I made a commitment to this field because I care deeply about it and see a great future for it, and I’d like to continue to be a part of it. Maybe that will change somewhere down the line and I will move on to something else, but for the time being I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything close to what I set out to do, and the thought of abandoning those goals at this point in my life made me unbelievably sad.

There are many challenges I face on a daily basis in my current position, some of which seem insurmountable at times. But I don’t want to be a quitter – not when so much is personally at stake. I want to give it my best shot. I want to be able to look back and say I tried, even if things don’t work out. I have to swallow my fear and charge ahead.

This decision has been the toughest one I’ve faced in my professional life. It caused me countless sleepless nights and horrible stress, and I know I was a terribly unpleasant person to be around during the whole process. And I still struggle with the choice I made and probably will for awhile. Did I do the right thing? Was this a smart move? Or was it another rotten mistake? Maybe I’ll never know. All I do know is that I have to move on and take my parents’ advice and not look back. Focus on the good things: I get to stay close to family, be in a city I love (love to hate, at times!), and work with animals. I can have the satisfaction of keeping a job I fought tooth and nail to get, despite all of its problems (and there are many). I can be a trendsetter and a pioneer. I can start things that have never been done before. I will not have to be just another nameless cog in a wheel.

The frustrations will be many and there will be lots of times I just want to give up – this I know. But I won’t. I have ideas and enthusiasm for this. Whatever this becomes will be a direct result of what I make happen. I am determined. And I have a lot to learn. I am scared, but I will survive (I think).

I thought I’d close this post with a video that sums it all up. Those who know me know I am a Phillies fan for life, and hold a special place in my heart for legendary sportscaster Harry Kalas who left us far too soon. He was an amazing person, and hearing his voice reminds me of summer nights as a kid with my dad, watching the Phils battle it out. Kalas is well known for singing a song called “High Hopes” by Frank Sinatra, and whenever I struggle with sadness or frustration, it is my go-to mantra. It is a very fitting song for this occasion.

Onward and upward.

Click the link below to sing along :)


Next time your found, with your chin on the ground
There a lot to be learned, so look around

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
Hes got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time your gettin’ low
‘Stead of lettin’ go
Just remember that ant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant