New technology and collaboration could transform wildlife monitoring

Camera traps are one of the best methods we have for monitoring endangered species. A single camera trap can store tens of thousands of wildlife images, helping WWF staff gain an unparalleled view of endangered species and their habitats.

Technology has made it very easy to collect wildlife data, but it is incredibly challenging and time-consuming to process it. Right now, millions of camera-trap images of animals in the wild are sitting on people’s computers. It’s a major lost opportunity for conservation.

A powerful new tool may be able to change that. Wildlife Insights is a one-of-a-kind cloud-based platform housing the largest publicly accessible database of camera trap images in the world. This tool, operated in partnership by WWF, Conservation International, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society, The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Zoological Society of London, Map of Life and Google, allows researchers and conservation organizations around the world to share and analyze wildlife data to ultimately better anticipate threats, understand where and why wildlife populations are changing, and take action to protect wildlife.

The importance of camera traps

“As a conservation ecologist, camera traps have completely changed the way we monitor and count wild animals, especially in dense tropical forests where you almost never see animals with your own eyes,” says WWF-US’s Arnaud Lyet, Senior Wildlife Conservation Scientist.

“Before camera traps, determining exactly how many rhinos or how many tigers were living in a specific park was one of the most difficult questions to answer. I’ve worked with our field team in Ujung Kulon National Park, in Java, Indonesia, for many years,” says Lyet “and I can probably count on one hand the number of ecologists who have seen a Javan rhino in the wild.”

Now, equipped with more than 100 camera traps continuously snapping pictures, almost every individual Javan rhino within the park has been photographed. WWF researchers know the precise size of the population.

“We know every individual, where they go when they give birth,” says Lyet.

Camera traps provide the strong evidence that ecologists need to assess the true status of populations, but with cameras running 24/7, collecting tens of thousands of images, it creates a backlog.

“I’ve seen firsthand how much valuable data remains unprocessed and unused.”

Wildlife Insights aims to significantly reduce the amount of time spent processing and identifying camera trap data, dramatically speeding up the pace at which this information can be processed and analyzed.

Using a Google-developed artificial intelligence-enabled software, the platform has been trained on over 600 different species and this number is growing as more photos are added. Through the automatic identification feature, thousands of images are classified in seconds, far faster than can be done with a trained eye.

Overcoming challenges

Not only is it incredibly time consuming to process camera trap data, but these data are also notoriously difficult to share. Most researchers store their data on individual hard drives that are prone to loss or damage and these data are rarely organized in a standardized format.

“This means that collaborating on projects can be quite laborious.” says Lyet

Wildlife Insights was developed to encourage collaboration. With everything stored in the cloud, collaborating on camera trap projects is as easy as editing a Google Doc — everything is updated in real time. By facilitating transparency and open data sharing, Wildlife Insights provides the tools needed to connect data providers to decision-makers to help recover and preserve wildlife populations.

“Wildlife Insights is a great example of how global knowledge and information sharing contributes to good science outcomes.” says Lyet. ‘This is exactly what we need to better understand and address the challenges of threatened and endangered species and their habitats. This collaborative tool will be critical in helping our conservation efforts and provide a glimpse of hope to reverse the trend of biodiversity decline.”

Google has also released a background video on how Wildlife Insights was developed. Watch the video here.