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Wildlife Crime Technology Project

rangers by truck

Over four and a half years, the Google.org-funded Wildlife Crime Technology Project (WCTP) provided WWF a platform to innovate and test a number of innovative technologies, many of which have the potential to change the course of the global fight against wildlife crime. While there were many successes during the project period, perhaps the greatest legacy of this investment will be the platform it has allowed WWF to build through key partnerships and an adaptive approach that will have benefit far beyond the original scope of work. Below is a summary of wins and lessons learned from the project.

The Challenge and Early Lessons

“WWF is using technology in the right ways. What I have come to value the most about working with them has been their desire to collaborate and knowledge share to build solutions at scale. It is this kind of attitude that silicon engineers like to engage with.”

Katherine Chou
Project Lead, Google[X]

In 2012—a year in which poachers killed at least 745 rhinos and 22,000 elephants in Africa alone—Google.org presented WWF with a $5 million Global Impact Award to “harness technological innovation to stop conservation crime.” This visionary investment launched the WCTP, through which WWF and our partners seek solutions to end the global wildlife poaching epidemic. This scourge is taking a dangerous toll on rangers, threatening the livelihoods of communities, damaging ecosystems, and emptying them of wildlife—all to feed an illegal wildlife trade valued at more than an estimated $10 billion each year.

We set out to create an umbrella of technology tools to support rangers in their anti-poaching efforts, with an initial focus on piloting the use and integration of three specific technologies in Namibia: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones), wildlife tracking tags, and SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool), a ranger patrol analysis software program. Following the conclusion of Phase 1 (October 2012-June 2014), it became clear that we needed to adapt our approach, since governments across Africa were banning the use of UAVs; cell coverage for tracking tags was poor in many of the continent’s poaching hotspots; and governments were resistant to adopting the SMART software system. We realized that we needed to rapidly pivot from a top-down technology-driven approach to a bottom-up problem-driven approach if we were to make a meaningful impact on the poaching crises.

Building on the learning from Phase 1, we embraced Google’s spirit of innovation and turned our focus to identifying technological solutions to several key challenges. First, because most poaching occurs at night, systems need to function in darkness. Second, since connectivity and real-time sharing of information and data was critical to success, we needed to explore other types of networks for our communications backbone. Third, harsh field conditions necessitated that we look beyond “off-the-shelf” technology, instead creating our own adapted solutions.

Testing Solutions and Achieving Impact

In 2014, Phase 2 began with a range of investments responding to the identified challenges. We explored using radar to detect the metal snares that entrap wildlife and acoustic sensors to detect gunshots. The WCTP funded the development of advanced prototypes such as virtual radar fences to detect themovement of poachers or other illegal intruders. And we tested and improved existing technologies, including UAVs, thermal cameras, wildlife tracking tags, and a software program called 'SMART' that allows rangers and protected areas managers to report timely and accurate information about poaching and other threats to biodiversity.

Timeline

 
  1. March 2013
    Republic of Namibia Ministry of Environment & Tourism Emblem
  2. October 2013

    WWF co-hosts a forum on Protecting Threatened Wildlife in Africa with Technology and Training with the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and African Parks. Over 60 experts from the research and development, government, enforcement, non-profit and private sectors convene to discuss specific experiences with emerging technologies.

    Elephant
 
  1. March 2014

    WWF and Falcon UAV begin flight training for Namibian Park Wardens; licensed tech is later transferred to the MET.

    Throwing a UAV into the air
  2. September 2014

    An automated waterhole surveillance system with 24/7 live video streaming, manufactured by COBHAM, was installed at 3 waterholes and reported as fully operational in Namibia’s Waterberg Plateau Park.

 
  1. June 2015

    WWF field tests prototype thermal cameras and machine learning to identify humans and trigger automated alerts for rangers when suspected poachers cross into parks.

  2. November 2015

    WWF, in partnership with United for Wildlife, launches WILDLABS.NET: the conservation technology network to build community across global users and developers of technology tools for conservation.

  3. November 2015

    WWF brings together thought leaders to explore current uses of innovative technology and the promises and perils they present for addressing some of the planet's greatest challenges at the 2015 Fuller Science For Nature Symposium and Tech Fair, Wired in the Wild: Can technology save the planet?

  4. December 2015

    WWF tests virtual radar-fences technology in South Africa.

  5. December 2015

    A 5 day SMART training takes place in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, training 22 participants in the use of SMART software.

    Zebra migration in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
 
  1. March 2016

    Working with KWS and the Mara Conservancy, WWF installs thermal cameras in two critical Kenyan sites. Since their installation, these cameras have aided rangers in capturing dozens of poachers.

  2. March 2016

    WWF installs a thermal camera system using artificial intelligence to detect humans along in Lake Nakuru National Park. A poacher is detected and arrested within the first week of operation.

    Park ranger Josiah Mwangi, Lake Nakuru National Park Kenya
  3. March 2016

    WWF deploys a LoRa Wide Area Network and tests the LoRa GPS tracker in the Masai Mara National Reserve.

    Equus burchelli Burchell's zebra On alert as they watch lions. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
  4. April 2016

    A mobile FLIR camera system is mounted on a Mara Conservancy ranger vehicle and tested at Masai Mara National Reserve. Rangers capture poachers using teh system in the first week of use.

    Ranger Lema Lankas tests the control board to pan and tilt the mobile FLIR camera mounted on top of the truck. The camera can focus on objects (like poachers) nearly a mile away.
  5. July 2016

    A 2 day SMART training took place at Waterberg Plateau Park, Namibia, training 4 rangers in the use of SMART software.

    Namibia Elephant at sunset
  6. September 2016

    First UAV flight in Liwonde National Park, prevents elephant from leaving park to raid crops.

    African elephant, Loxodonta africana, herd by water
  7. October 2016

    WWF evaluated the use of UAVs with cutting edge video detection system to detect poaching, and reduce human-wildlife conflict in Malawi and Zimbabwe

  8. November 2016

    Flights commence at Hwange National Park.

    Black rhino shot from an upward angle against a bright blue sky
  9. December 2016

    Fiber optic cable begins to be installed along 50 kilometers of Chitwan's northern border. Electrical wires were also laid to support power for security cameras.

    Chitwan National Park scenic view of Tharu village Nepal
 
  1. January 2017

    Audio alert towers are prepared for installation in Chitwan.

    Chitwan National Park sign
  2. January 2017

    53 GPS equipped tracking devices installed on tour-operated vehicles. Devices connect to the park control room via GSM SIM card with a 2G network.

    Rhino scout team in Chitwan National Park
  3. January 2017

    Twenty-five perimeter security cameras are installed and operationalized. Steel poles are erected and cameras installed on poles.

    Female rhino in Chitwan National Park, Nepal
  4. January 2017

    Two command and control centers are established to receive the video feeds at Amaltari and Kasara. The new technology begins to be integrated into the operations and management of the park.

    Amaltari community
  5. January 2017

    Audio towers completed, and system passes testing.

    Nepal at sunset
  6. February 2017

    Chitwan National Park and local communities trained in the use and care of the system.

    In Baghkhor, Amaltari, near Chitwan National Park, Min Kumari Gurau (left) and Rupani Devi Gurau deliver breakfast to guests at their family homestay, which is run by Min and her husband, Dahni Ram Gurau.
  7. March 2017

    Mutli Sensor Solutions provides frequency bands, under one GHz, where the snare has the strongest response, and shows promise for future investment.

    A giraffe in a National Park in central Kenya.
  8. April 2017

    WWF and Cisco Systems initiate a major project at Kafue National Park, Zambia that will use FLIR cameras, unattended group sensors, camera traps, and other sensors.

    FLIR camera
  9. August 2017

    WWF begins installing long range FLIR cameras with artificial intelligence in a national park in Malawi to detect poachers along a river entrance route.

    setting up a FLIR camera at night