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.
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)
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)
This is ONE park in ONE country. The numbers don’t include the increase in poaching seen in other areas across Africa.
An amazingly virulent demand for ivory in China is to blame for the slaughter. Most of the ivory is smuggled into China and Thailand via increasingly sophisticated methods, including using unsuspected routes and even placing secret compartments on the undersides of ships. Poachers arrive on horseback from Sudan and Chad, having already wiped out the elephant populations in Chad. An increasing number of Chinese middlemen moving to Africa are aiding the crisis. Another article describes an additional reason: “In 2008, the ban on ivory sales was lifted to allow for the trade of 108 tons of ivory stocks from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe to China and Japan. The sell-off did dispense with old stocks but it also boosted demand – and worryingly provided an ideal cover for illicit ivory sales” (http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/16192133).
Photo courtesy of AFP
So what is being done to fight the killing? Cameroon dispatched troops to combat and track the poachers. And Interpol is carrying out an anti-poaching effort called Operation Worthy, “aimed at stifling the increasing demand in illegal elephant ivory”, and it has seen some success: “several dozen people have been arrested and the agents have recovered what they describe as “significant” amounts of illegal wildlife products – including more than 250kg of raw ivory but also lion and leopard pelts, python and crocodile skins and live birds; the operation has been co-ordinated by Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme and funded by theInternational Fund for Animal Welfare”, (http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/16192133). In the Congo, bloodhounds are being used to track poachers with mixed success rates, but at least it shows a willingness to try new techniques. Read about it here: http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/03/05/10582934-bloodhounds-used-to-sniff-out-people-killing-elephants-for-ivory.
But the sad fact is that the troops sent to protect elephants and other wildlife (including rhinos that are killed for their horns) often find themselves unprepared for poachers who have extensive networks and high-powered weapons, and often end up losing their own lives. The Cameroon troops are losing the battle.
Recently there have been a large number of articles and news stories about the rapid decline of elephant populations due to poaching. In fact, according to an article in the UK Daily Mail, 2011 has been the worst year for elephants since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with 2500 estimated to have been slaughtered.
Just this month saw the largest ivory seizure ever recorded: 15 tonnes in a port near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From Wildlife Extra News: “Prior to this the largest seizure was of around 6.5 tonnes in Singapore in 2002. If we estimate the tusks of an African elephant weigh 30 kilos each, this haul represents the death of 250 elephants! The shipment originated in Mombasa, Kenya, and was hidden inside containers marked as ‘sandstone-made handicraft’. Authorities in Malaysia have valued the shipment at approximately £15 million” (http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/ivory-smuggling011.html#cr).
Is this worth their lives? (Photo courtesy of dailymail.co.uk)
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has said that the gangs responsible are increasingly sophisticated and well-funded, and are changing their preferred method of shipment to sea rather than air. Their routes are changing as well, to avoid detection. The majority of shipments are bound for Asia, but “once inside Asia, the documentation accompanying an onward shipment is changed to make it appear as a local re-export, helping to conceal its origin from Africa” (http://www.traffic.org/home/2011/12/29/2011-annus-horribilis-for-african-elephants-says-traffic.html).
An article on the website allAfrica.com states that in Uganda elephants are being poached even inside national parks: “The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) [showed] that the numbers of elephants killed in parks since the year began have more than tripled. According to UWA, 33 elephants have been killed at Murchison Falls National Game Park in the last seven years, of which 25 have been killed this year”. The entire article can be read here: http://allafrica.com/stories/201112050626.html. And this is only ONE PARK!!
Malaysia ivory seizure (photo courtesy of dailymail.co.uk)
As lucrative as the drug trade, poaching for ivory brings in big bucks. The allAfrica.com article states that a “kilogramme of ivory on international market goes for between $1,500 (about Shs3.8 million) $4,000 (about Shs10.2 million) and a pair of tusks from a mature elephant can weigh about 40 kliogrammes” (http://allafrica.com/stories/201112050626.html).
The Wildlife Conservation Society (an organization I am proud to support) has posted a short, interesting and informative video about the issue with suggestions on what you can do to help:
DON’T BUY IVORY OR ANYTHING YOU EVEN THINK MIGHT BE IVORY!
Donate to the Wildlife Conservation Society or other organizations like them who are working within the countries hardest hit to establish stronger patrols.
Educate yourself and others! Talk about this! Spread the word! The more people who know about this massive issue the better.
Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant expert, states, “As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning.”
I so desperately want him to be wrong. I can’t imagine a world without elephants. Someday I hope to be out there studying them. Like Dr. Liz Bennett states in the video, even if you never see an elephant in the wild, the fact that they are out there makes the world a better place. Please join me in this fight. I want to see 2012 be a positive year for the elephants, and for all of us.
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!