Today I awoke to the tragic and for me, incomprehensible, news of the death of my former boss and mentor, George Bengal. It has forced me to confront something I never foresaw or expected, and even when the warnings came, it still never seemed real.
George embodied vitality and energy. He took care of himself religiously, going to the gym and watching what he ate. I used to tease him about the slime-green, hideous-looking drinks he would bring to work, but that was him (that attentiveness to his health is why this was so shocking). He radiated dedication and enthusiasm. I used to hear his voice down the hall from his office, shouting to his officers or laughing about a joke. He was passionate and inspiring. To me, he was larger than life.
I ask myself now, as I’ve asked myself mentally since I first heard of his diagnosis: how do you say goodbye to someone like that? How do you say goodbye to someone who has figured so prominently in your life for so long, been the reason you are where you are and are doing what you are doing, been the source of so much emotion, both good and bad? He and I clashed mightily over numerous issues. There was animosity and frustration, fear and skepticism, and, of course, respect and admiration. In the end, I believe we formed a bond of an indescribable kind – developed from working alongside each other and from learning, not from preconceived notions or second-hand knowledge or gossip. I know that the bad is fleeting and temporary; the good is permanent.
He took a stand for things he felt were right and didn’t back down. That obstinance was a source of animosity for some, and inspiration for others. I put myself in the latter category. He showed me different ways of looking at things and caused me to reconsider preconceived notions. His determination was a source of strength. He faced on a daily basis what most people would turn a blind eye to or refuse to acknowledge. You can read more about George here: http://www.fox29.com/news/145568011-story. There are so many things to say, but I just can’t find the words right now.
Perhaps the best thing is not to ask how to say goodbye. Just say “until later”. Someday I may get to hear your ringtone, “Moves like Jagger” again. And I can say all the things I didn’t get to say. But maybe then none of it will matter anymore. Until later… I will keep up the fight for you. Until later… I will laugh about the fun memories. Until later… I will always think of you as a mentor and friend. An inspiration. A hero.
Until later, George. You will be missed, and my world will be a little dimmer.
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
Welcome! This site is all about my adventures as a forensic science graduate student as well as the new, emerging fields of veterinary and wildlife forensics. Feel free to poke around, leave comments, or say hi!