Category Archives: Endangered Species

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.

http://stories.weather.com/animalforensics

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.

image201501262453117okr76

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.

http://youtu.be/PGznqCl3LVk

Pledging to Help

Photo courtesy of TRAFFIC

Alert: Another elephant post…

Some good, some bad. Recently, 10 African countries (Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Rwanda and Sao Tome e Principe) signed a plan to “strengthen law enforcement and better combat poaching of elephants and other species at risk from illegal wildlife trade” (Seattlepi.com). These 10 countries make up the Central African Forest Commission, or COMIFAC.

COMIFAC leaders (photo courtesy of Conservation International)

Leaders from COMIFAC agreed to increase collaboration with law enforcement, customs, and the courts to combat poaching:

“The law enforcement action plan includes provisions to increase anti-poaching efforts in each of the countries and to enable joint-country patrols in some transborder areas. Ivory, often bound for Asia, is frequently smuggled across inland borders before reaching overseas exit points such as ports and airports. Under the plan, customs controls are also set to be bolstered at international transit hubs. To ensure that criminals engaging in illegal wildlife trade are arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, COMIFAC countries plan to ramp up investigations and conduct more thorough prosecutions. Cases will also be monitored for corruption and action taken against anyone attempting to impede justice” (Seattlepi.com).

Previously I had posted on the devastating slaughter of over 200 elephants in Cameroon. With poaching at its highest in a decade, this agreement could not come at a better time. A UN-backed report reinforced what many studies have already shown – that the past three years have seen an extreme increase in elephant poaching with record seizures of ivory, and much more sophisticated efforts on the part of poachers.

“We need to enhance our collective efforts across range, transit and consumer states to reverse the current disturbing trends in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling,” the Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), John E. Scanlon, said in a news release on the report.

“While being essential, enforcement efforts to stop wildlife crime must not just result in seizures – they must result in prosecutions, convictions and strong penalties to stop the flow of contraband,” he added. “The whole ‘enforcement chain’ must work together.” (un.org)

Read the article here: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42295&Cr=endangered+species&Cr1=

In my mind, it is not only enforcement that will make the difference, but education. However, changing people’s attitudes and beliefs about the value of ivory, the necessity of endangered animal parts for use in traditional medicine, or the excitement of owning an exotic pet will be a monumental task.

All I can do is spread the word, stay involved, and hope for the best.

Cameroon ranger with ivory (photo courtesy of WWF)

Protecting Our Oceans

Last Friday was World Oceans Day. I have always loved the ocean, and was fortunate enough to live at the beaches of southern Delaware a few years ago where I could surf, fish, and take my dog for a swim in the ocean and bay any time I wished. To me, the ocean is symbolic and awe-inspiring, capable of evoking unbridled happiness and intense fear. She commands constant respect; take her for granted for only a second and she will furiously slap you back into submission.

But the world’s oceans are rapidly being depleted of the species that make them what they are. Poachers are snatching coral, rays, and aquatic species of all kinds at an unsustainable rate. Perhaps the worst are the shark poachers, who typically catch sharks, cut off their dorsal fins, and toss them carelessly back into the ocean to die. One Washington Post article states that  “reef sharks in the Pacific have declined more than 90 percent in recent decades”.

Recently, several shark poachers were caught off the coast of Indonesia among a group of islands known as Raja Ampat, a marine protected area (MPA) and a place I have long wanted to visit – it may be one of the most beautiful areas on earth.

Raja Ampat – Indonesia (Photo by Scuba-Libre-Bali.com)

Part of the Bird’s Head Seascape, it is an area that naturally boasts sea turtle nesting, colorful coral, shark and ray breeding grounds, and a multitude of species not seen anywhere else. It is protected by proud, trained villagers working on patrols with local police dedicated to maintaining it’s diversity. A Conservation International (CI) article says:

“Despite its global importance, the area was previously a hotbed of illegal activities such as dynamite fishing and shark finning from outside fishermen. However, in 2006 the local Kawe tribal leaders decided enough was enough. With support from CI, they declared a 155,000-hectare (383,000-acre) MPA in a bottom-up process that included a declaration both by the Papuan traditional Adat council as well as the Raja Ampat government. This was eventually followed by a national declaration affording it the highest level of protection for any MPA in Papua. The Kawe communities took it one step further, declaring over 97.5 percent of the MPA as a “no-take zone” through a traditional Papuan sasi declaration, meaning that no fishing of any kind is allowed within this area. With this declaration they made the Kawe MPA into the single largest no-take zone in all of the Coral Triangle, a region stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines and the Solomon Islands. In addition, in 2011 the area was additionally protected under the Raja Ampat shark sanctuary decree, which forbids any shark and ray fishing anywhere in Raja Ampat,” (http://blog.conservation.org/2012/05/shark-poachers-chased-down-by-indonesian-communities-police/).

Poachers with their catch. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

Unfortunately, as is the case everywhere, some choose to disregard the regulations. In this poaching case, seven boats of fishermen were rounded up for illegal fishing after they tried to evade capture. Long lines and air compressors, gear commonly used in shark fishing, were found on board their vessels. Sharks, still alive but bleeding after being hacked apart, were struggling and dying on the boats. Piles of shark fins, sea cucumbers, and rays were confiscated, and the estimated price of the catch and the gear amounted to approximately 1.5 billion rupiah (about US$ 160,000). The Washington Post states that “sharks are used to make shark’s fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, and sea cucumbers are sought by Japanese diners“. This Post article also has a link to an interesting article about shark’s fin soup.

Shark fins. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

The most frustrating thing about this case is that there was not enough man-power to physically capture and prosecute the poachers – it was night and law enforcement had only one boat. Although an official arrest was made and they were ordered to report for processing the next morning, the poachers fled. The government has pledged to pursue them.

The illegal fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

On a positive note, this shows the willingness of local governments to protect their natural resources from poachers. But in the world’s most remote areas, enforcement of the laws may be difficult if not impossible, due to scarce resources and a lack of personnel. However, it CAN happen… check out this article about Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Park at the tip of the Baja Peninsula  – in just 10 years, the amount of fish in the area has increased more than 460 PERCENT! This amazing feat was achieved solely by strict enforcement of protection laws by locals, and has resulted in not only an incredible recovery of what was once a depleted natural resource area, but in a revenue-generating eco-tourism boom! The article also has a beautiful one minute underwater video of the HOARDES of fish that thrive in the area.

I celebrated World Oceans Day by concentrating on the positive victories. Eliminating poaching CAN be done. Let’s learn from this example and keep pushing. Our oceans depend on it.

Trying Everything

Photo by animalcsi

In my last post I wrote about the most recent devastating poaching event in Cameroon, in which hundreds of elephants were gunned down by poachers for their ivory. Efforts to stop the slaughter in countries all across Africa are underway but the problems are numerous and include rangers being out-manned and out-gunned by armies of poachers who arrive on horseback with advanced weaponry and an almost complete lack of government funding for anti-poaching efforts. But I have to celebrate even the small efforts, and the short video below from the New Zealand Herald demonstrates one of the ways Kenya is battling back by attaching radio collars to elephants. This will enable the wildlife officials to track them and know better how to direct the on-the-ground teams deployed to fight the poachers.

Click here for the video: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/video/news/video.cfm?c_id=1501138&gal_cid=1501138&gallery_id=125030

I also came across an interesting article describing a unique method to deter elephants from crop-raiding by using chili pepper mixed with engine oil to coat fences. Not only do elephants face an uncertain future due to poaching, but they are also often the subject of farmers’ anger when they steal crops; the conflicts often end in the death of either the farmer or the elephant. This chili pepper method has gained in popularity as a deterrent, along with using bees. But as elephants are extremely adaptable and will eventually adjust to the techniques or find ways around them, new ideas are constantly needed. Read the article on the chili pepper fences below:

http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052702303815404577333780433251036-lMyQjAxMTAyMDEwNjExNDYyWj.html?mod=wsj_share_email

As an aside, this week I am attending the veterinary forensics conference put on by the International Veterinary Forensic Science Association (IVFSA). It is my third IVFSA event and I have enjoyed all of them and I will be posting updates as to the goings-on down here in beautiful Miami!

Here’s the view from my hotel room: