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The Animal Protection Engine (APE): Modern Tech and Wildlife Conservation

Dr. Thomas Snitch is Chairman of the Board of Visitors at the University of Maryland’s College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences and a Visiting Professor at Maryland’s Institute of Advanced Computer Studies. In May, 2013, he flew the first night UAV anti-poaching missions in Africa

The world was recently outraged to learn of the death of the beloved Zimbabwean lion, Cecil. Then, just last week, a mammoth 50 year old elephant with huge tusks was killed by a German hunter in Zimbabwe. It is a pity the bull elephant didn’t have a name since he has already disappeared from the world news.

Every day, over 100 elephants are killed for their tusks. Three rhinos are poached every day in South Africa and who knows how many pangolins, leopards, giraffes – yes, giraffes, and other wild animals are killed every single day?

The problem is that none of these animals have globally recognizable names, like Cecil.

They just died in the African bush because of an insatiable global demand for tusks, horns, scales or heads to mount on  trophy wall. Last week in a private reserve where we operate, two elderly bull elephants were killed in a hail of 12 gunshots next to a school’s play yard by trophy hunters.

On Saturday, Saturday, October 10, four brave Rangers, who did have names and families, were murdered by poachers in Garemba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Now, we have discovered that in the past two weeks, 30 elephants died from cyanide poisoning in Hwange National Park Zimbabwe.

There is a war going on in Africa led by poachers directed by Asian criminal syndicates and abetted by uncontrolled corruption throughout Africa. The poachers in Garemba who killed the four rangers had enough firepower to disable a rescue helicopter. These are not locals out to make a few dollars; it is a war fueled by billions of dollars realized from the illegal sale of rhino horns and elephant tusks.

Four years ago, my colleague at the University of Maryland, Dr. V.S. Subrahamian and I decided to tackle the poaching issue with mathematics. We created a series of algorithms, based on data collected in Africa, that allows us to understand how elephants, rhinos and poachers move through space and time. This coputer based approach identifies patterns and suggests when and where poachings are most likely to occur.

This knowledge gives us an opportunity to pre-position Rangers where they are most likely to encounter animals and they are then prepared to defend the animals from poachers. Thus scientific approach dramatically reduces the advantage that the poachers, operating over massive amounts of territory, have over the local Rangers.

Over the past three years, we have also used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to help watch over the animals, Rangers and find poachers at night.

Our work, known as the Animal Protection Engine (APE) is the world’s most complex analytical model of poaching; and it works.

Where we have deployed APE and drones, poaching stops within three days.

Our motto is – we do not need to find poachers, we need to find the animals they are trying to poach.

This is not an argument about legal hunting since most African nations allow a certain number of animals to be legally taken with costly permits.  It is a source of limited income for these countries and, ultimately, the decisions on the legalization of hunting a particular species rests with those governments. The American dentist, who shot Cecil, paid up to $50,000 to take that lion.

These African governments argue that by allowing this hunting, revenues are generated to support local populations. However, I have spent a considerable amount of time in African villages mired in abject poverty and it makes me wonder where these massive hunting fees really end up?

I personally believe that extremely expensive ecotourism lodges generate more revenue and certainly more employment for locals than hunting camps but that is just my observation.

Thus, I think what this is really about is the uncontrolled violence that is decimating the populations of animals throughout Africa. My fear is that this will lead to a downturn in this lucrative safari industry which ultimately means that many Africans, working in the tourism sector, will lose their jobs.

Does the world need more young unemployed people in Southern Africa? If not, then how can we address and attack the poaching epidemic issue in Africa?

Simply stated, this is not a technology issue and the University of Maryland’s APE effort has proven that. In fact, I have seen literally hundreds of devices from aerostats to infrared cameras to basic GPS tracking devices that could be used to combat and ultimately slow down the rates of poaching. Simple solar powered video cameras can help defend large areas of territory.

The poaching situation is so dire than almost any appropriate technology, properly deployed, can make a marked difference. If for nothing else, the poachers who have operated with impunity for so long must now confront the fact that the game has changed. Technology can become a very valuable deterrent.

But here is the challenge we currently face — it is next to impossible to fly a drone to protect rhinos or elephants in the African bush. In South Africa, you must be certified as a commercial airline to fly a hand launched, unmanned aerial vehicle that weights less than 15 pounds and carries only an infrared camera. Our UAVs are battery powered and fly for a few hours but they can identify, at night, where poachers are waiting to ambush animals or Rangers. They are not commercial airplanes.

Seems like a no brainer; an inexpensive flight platform that can see at night and save both people and animals.

We have tried, unsuccessfully, to gain permission to fly UAVs in Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, the DRC, and South Africa. These governments claim it is too dangerous to fly small drones, made of injected foam, in the bush at night. Yet, it is not too dangerous to allow poachers, armed with AK-47 automatic weapons, to kill animals and Rangers with impunity.

We are confronting individuals who are killing Rangers and shooting down helicopters but we cannot try to find out where they are hiding in the bush with a small, unarmed UAV.

I guess the drone might fall out of the sky, injure a poacher and the governments worry that they might be sued.

The bottom line is simply that there is a lack of serious political will, at many levels of governments across Africa, to address this issue head on. This lack of will is compounded by the stench of corruption across the Continent. Poaching is a multi-million dollar enterprise and I am not surprised that where APE has been successful, we are ordered to leave.

For months, we have pleaded with a nation in Southern Africa to allow us to test a small UAV, in a private reserve, for seven days. Just a series of flight tests with a camera. Every night, the reserve is exposed to gunshots, for hours on end, and they are desperate for help.

The answer from the government has been that this is unnecessary since there really isn’t a poaching problem in the region and all hunting is based on legal permits in legal hunting areas.

With a couple of exceptions.

This is precisely where I earlier mentioned that the two elephants were gunned down in the schoolyard. A playground seems like on odd place to issue a permit to hunt. Moreover, I don’t know of any serious and legal hunters who shoot at night.

One day after the elephants were murdered, the local game officials killed an old Cape buffalo in the front yard of another private lodge — while a group of tourists were taking photos of the animal. The officials stated the buffalo was a threat. The fact is that the old boy had been snoozing in the reserve for months. However, I am quite sure the local government enjoyed buffalo steak dinners that evening.

I have a very serious and growing fear that as this violence spirals out of control, it is only a matter of time before a foreign tourist is gunned down. Last week, a safari vehicle of Spanish visitors was caught in the middle of a gun battle during a game drive. When an ugly killing of a tourist occurs, and it will eventually happen, the African luxury ecotourism business will collapse.

It will be intriguing to hear African government officials explain to the United States government how a vehicle of American tourists were murdered by poachers during a photo safari. Maybe then, some senior official – somewhere — will have the courage to say – we have a real problem and need some help.

There are hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, from around the world, ready to answer that call. As I said, the technology is available and most of these potential solutions are quite inexpensive so it is not a money or know how issue.

It is simply this. Every self-help program I have ever heard of starts the same way; the first step is to admit you have a problem.

 

Dr. Thomas Snitch is Chairman of the Board of Visitors at the University of Maryland’s College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences and a Visiting Professor at Maryland’s Institute of Advanced Computer Studies. In May, 2013, he flew the first night UAV anti-poaching missions in Africa

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