New anti-poaching technology leads to dozens of arrests of wildlife criminals in Africa

WWF’s thermal infrared camera imaging and human detection software stops poachers in their tracks

Three ghostly figures march at a steady pace from left to right across a grainy screen—a small caravan of poachers on the hunt for wildlife in the Maasai Mara reserve in Africa. The footage shows them moving confidently under the cover of night; the protected area encompasses more than 500 square miles, making the chances of bumping into a ranger on patrol slim at best.

Testing controls

Soon, a truck swerves into the frame and the figures drop to the ground. The vehicle zooms past their hiding spot, then circles back and stops several paces away. Rangers jump out and apprehend the poachers. It’s as though they can see in the dark.

And, in a way, they can.

WWF installed a new thermal infrared camera that can identify poachers from afar by their body heat—even in the dead of night—and it has since transformed the way rangers track down and apprehend criminals since its introduction in March. Streaming video helps guide rangers through the darkness. And nine months after putting the technology to use, rangers have arrested more than two dozen poachers in the Maasai Mara, and apprehended two poachers via the camera system coupled with human detection software at another undisclosed national park in Kenya.

“Poachers can no longer use the cover of night to run and hide,” said Colby Loucks, WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project lead. “Their days of evading arrest are over. This groundbreaking technology allows them to search for poachers 24 hours a day, from up to a mile away, in pitch darkness. It’s upping the game in our fight to stop wildlife crime across the region.”

The camera can scan a one-mile radius and creates a live streaming video on a screen based solely on heat. Living creatures, such as people and animals, appear in a shock of white, while cooler objects, such as grasses or trees, show up in shades of gray. A ranger manning the camera can quickly communicate to his or her colleagues when an unauthorized person pans into view and guide them to the location. It’s a surefire way for them to sneak up on and apprehend poachers.

A man installing solar panels for FLIR camera system

“The ability of our rangers to distinguish potential poachers from a large distance is nothing short of remarkable,” said Brian Heath, CEO and director of the Mara Conservancy, an organization that helps with conservation efforts in the northwestern sector of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. “The last three people our team arrested were flabbergasted as to how they were detected. Normally they simply sneak away when an ambush is sprung and avoid detection. Now, their heat signatures are picked up by the thermal camera. We’re catching them.”

This is one of the first uses for forward-looking infrared (FLIR) technology outside of the military and law enforcement. WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project is implementing this work with a $5 million grant from supporting innovative technology to combat wildlife crime.

WWF is working with FLIR Systems Inc., as part of a new collaboration to broaden the use of thermal imaging, and African Parks, UDS and Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd to install similar thermal imaging technology in drones. Anti-poaching drone test flights began in Zimbabwe and Malawi in October of this year.