There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.
James Weliver / USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons
Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.
Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.
Helge Denker / WWF-Namibia
Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.
Centre for Conservation and Research, Flickr Creative Commons
Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.
SMART / North Carolina Zoo
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.
Samir Sinha / TRAFFIC India
In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.
Drones have been banned from all national parks in the United States, according to new regulations established by U.S. government officials.
The National Park Service (NPS), the government agency that manages the nation's national parks, monuments and other historical sites, has outlawed launching, landing or operating drones over all federally administered lands and waters. Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, signed the policy memo into effect on June 27.
"We embrace many activities in national parks because they enhance visitor experience with the iconic natural, historic and cultural landscapes in our care," Jarvis said in a statement. "However, we have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks, so we are prohibiting their use until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience." (8 Amazing National Park Structures)
In May, Yosemite National Park in California banned the use of drones anywhere within the park's boundaries. NPS superintendents had reported that these flying bots were frequently being used to film above Yosemite's treetops to capture stunning aerial views of the landscape.
Park officials hope the drone ban will cut down on the number of noise and nuisance complaints filed by visitors, and will help ensure the safety of those on NPS grounds.
Last September, park rangers confiscated a drone that caused a disturbance when it flew over the Mount Rushmore National Memorial amphitheater in South Dakota. In April, visitors to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona complained about a drone that loudly flew over the area and eventually crashed into the canyon.
Similarly, volunteers at Zion National Park in Utah reported an incident where a robotic flyer flew near a herd of bighorn sheep, causing a commotion that scattered and separated some young sheep from the adults.
Despite the prohibition, the NPS may use drones for search-and-rescue operations, fire safety and scientific study, according to Jarvis, but these uses will require special approval.
Jarvis said the ban is a temporary measure until government officials can assess how people can safely operate these flying bots over densely populated areas, in urban settings, and in the same airspace as manned aircraft.
The NPS rules also do not infringe on the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees all aspects of the country's civil aviation. The FAA is currently developing official rules for the use of commercial drones. Regulations for small commercial drones that weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kilograms) are expected to be released in 2015.
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