Drones, Mathematicians Join Forces Fight Against Poachers Intensifies
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly called drones, are fast becoming the preferred technology in the fight against poaching, especially in African wildlife sanctuaries. Compared with heavy media coverage of UAV military deployments, little attention has been paid to reasons why this unmanned aerial technology is so well suited to combat poaching. The central value of UAVs is their capability to carry payloads of sensitive technology, from GPS and infrared cameras to thermal imagers. In a military context, the function of on board gear would be intelligence gathering; in wildlife conservation it is more properly termed situational awareness – exactly what is happening, when, and where?
Since 2013, the University of Maryland Institute of Advanced Computer Science (UMIACS) has engaged in the innovative use of UAVs to protect endangered African wildlife, mainly elephants and rhinos. The project director is Dr. Thomas Snitch, who has supported American counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions.
As a mathematical economist, Snitch and his team amass data on a range of variables such as rhino movements (from GPS collars), watering habits, patterns of intra- sector ranger travel, and most importantly, when and how poachers move, hide, and strike. Once data is massaged into complex algorithms, the results are interpreted to prescribe optimum UAV launch times and flight patterns. Critical to UAV success in flying anti-poaching sorties is high- resolution satellite imagery. Snitch teamed with leading high-tech pioneer GeoEye to downlink the high-resolution images and program the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to target priority locations. (Unmanned Aerial System, or UAS, is a UAV with added on-board surveillance and ground control technology.)
Dr. Thomas Snitch, a mathematical economist, applies his models to wildlife, poachers and drones. “Unmanned aerial systems can be very helpful in finding both animals and poachers … If we can clearly determine where rhinos are on a given night, we can use a UAS with an infrared camera to circle the animals while looking for poachers that are approaching them.”
Snitch reflects on the program’s success by describing what has become the optimum interdiction scenario: “UAS can be very helpful in finding both animals and poachers. We use a mathematical model that is based on a number of variables. If we can clearly determine where rhinos are on a given night, we can use a UAS with an infrared camera to circle the animals while looking for poachers that are approaching them. With this information, we can move the ground rangers into positions so that they can intercept the poachers before they reach the animal. The model tells us precisely where to fly the UAS to have the most beneficial impact.”
Key to the resilience of the UAV program is continual updating of the mathematical model. In computer science, this is known as “heuristics.” Researchers are constantly inputting new data to the model based on changes in atmosphere, locations of herds, rangers, and poachers – each is a dynamic variable. Because the model is always “learning,” it constantly reorders the GPS risk factors that impact the UAV’s flight patterns. This focus on heuristics is absolutely critical to success: poachers are continually adapting their behavior, exploiting factors of stealth and timing in a sustained effort to evade and defeat the park rangers.
Results (6months) – 500+ missions, 600+ flight hours, Night flights = 0. In a proof-of-concept pilot, the team chose a Talon 120 UAS, which sports a wingspan of 10 feet and an overall system cost (including cameras, ground controller, and computer) of under $25,000. This makes the system affordable, and thus replicable, in countries extremely sensitive to start-up and operating costs. So far, due mainly to the Maryland UAV program’s attention to economic and operational drivers, park rangers are now winning battles in the enduring war against poaching.
U.S. Intelligence Community: Poaching Threatens African Security
James Clapper is the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), an executive level office created by Congress following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As DNI, Clapper has the difficult job of overseeing the vast U.S. intelligence community and coordinating its roster of intelligence agencies. One DNI responsibility is to produce National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs)—essential risk assessments that boil down military , economic, terrorist and environmental threats to U.S. national security.
In 2013, Clapper’s office released a declassified NIE summary on the burgeoning threat of international trafficking of endangered African wildlife. The groundbreaking NIE, titled Wildlife Poaching Threatens Economic, Security Priorities in Africa, confirms that organized poaching of elephants and rhinos is a serious transnational crime led by perpetrators who either barter ivory and rhino horns for munitions or sell to foreign traffickers. Profits generated by this illicit market weaken countries economically by depleting their once-huge inventories of valuable wildlife and, more immediately, financing insurgencies.
Increased demand for costly animal parts has triggered a dramatic rise in poaching, particularly in Africa. Criminal elements increasingly team with terrorists, at times in collusion with government officials known to be active in animal slaughter. For this contraband to reach market, concealed cargoes of ivory and rhino horn move from Africa to Asian and Western wholesalers, then to retail consumers.
Wildlife trafficking is “the fourth-largest transnational crime in the world.” Transnational smuggling of wildlife presents major security challenges to police and conservation forces in vulnerable African nations like Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, and Congo-Kinshasa. Park rangers are often out-gunned by poachers, more evidence of organized criminal and terrorist alliances. Corruption and lack of sufficient penal and financial deterrents hinder capabilities of affected governments to reduce poaching and smuggling.
Equipment and training, legal and diplomatic support, fundraising and expertise deliver a robust impact on the trajectory of illicit rhino horn and ivory trades. With these contributors, progress to gain new insights into the behavior of implicated criminal syndicates and associated trafficking networks is possible.According to the National Intelligence estimate (NIE), wildlife trafficking is “the fourth largest transnational crime in the world,” with annual revenues at an estimated US$17 billion. The United Nations reported that elephant poaching has doubled in the last decade.
Excerpts from the declassified National Intelligence Estimate:
Demand for rhino horn and ivory so outpaces supply, and is so lucrative, that criminal elements of all kinds, including some terrorist entities and rogue military officers, are becoming involved in countries across east, central, and southern Africa.
Air and sea shipments of illegal wildlife, in particular, are difficult to detect given the opportunity for alterations to shipping documents, which often obscure the African origin of the containers as well as their true contents. Criminal syndicates arguably take advantage of this lack of oversight and inspection of containerized shipping when trafficking illegal wildlife products.
By inducing widespread movement of armed poachers and traffickers, the ivory and rhino horn trade also exacerbates border insecurity, particularly across porous borders.
The illicit ivory and rhino horn trade arguably weakens macroeconomic and fiscal stability, deters investment, contributes to income inequality, and hinders growth at all levels of an economy. Tourism revenue is particularly threatened by unmitigated poaching.
Existing legal infrastructure throughout the ivory and rhino horn supply chain falls far short of what is needed to curtail the trade, and African nations have very few bilateral agreements on penalties and jurisdiction for prosecuting poachers and traffickers.
Obscure American Fund Protects Foreign Species
In May 2013, convicted smugglers Jimmy and Felix Kha, were sentenced in Los Angeles federal court to prison terms of 42 and 46 months respectively. The father and son ran an illegal network that imported white rhino horns. Jimmy Kha’s firm was also fined $100,000.Not quite finished with tough sanctions, the federal judge ordered the Khas to pay $800,000 as restitution to a little known federal conservation fund created to protect species threatened by illegal activities such as poaching.The $800,000 was part of a $2-million windfall in cash and gold seized from the Khas by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That conservation agency was chosen by Congress to manage the Multinational Species Conservation Fund (MSCF), the only congressionally mandated entity permitted to receive court imposed payments for conservation related crimes.MSCF assets may be used to support international efforts to protect and conserve rhinos and other critically endangered species around the world. For example, within the MSCF the special Rhino and Tiger Conservation Fund recently contributed almost $3-million to conservation programs in several African nations. Authorized animal protection and conservation activities include “capacity building” (training to strengthen foreign police and conservation personnel’s investigating skills). As the Department of Justice (DOJ) policy authorizes federal prosecutors to request a sentencing judge to order a convicted wildlife trafficker to pay restitution into a MSCF fund, hopefully more prosecutors will do just that.
UN Anti-Crime Office Tackles Caribbean Conservation Crime
Last December, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) hosted a Caribbean regional conference, Recovering the Proceeds from Wildlife and Timber Crimes. Administrators and investigators attended from Antigua, Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Turks and Caicos. UNODC held the conference to raise awareness among regional governments about the serious consequences of wildlife and timber crimes. They introduced financial investigative techniques to identify and track criminally derived assets (ill-gotten gains) by conspiring groups and individuals, focusing on accumulated wealth that cannot be explained by legitimate business activity. Each of the attending nations shared their assessment of the extent of indigenous wildlife and timber trafficking crimes, and in the feedback session voiced solidarity in collaborating as part of a regional network to increase investigative capabilities and enhance the gathering of intelligence.
Documentaries Sound Alarm
Readers of this newsletter have probably heard about the acclaimed video Virunga >>. Filmed entirely in the Congo about the genocide of mountain gorillas, the documentary is dramatically raising public consciousness. The film received a “Best Documentary” Oscar nomination. Virunga is one of a growing body of documentaries and short films by conservation advocates seeking to arouse public awareness about poaching.
In a more comprehensive offerings, World Wildlife Fund produced Stop Wildlife Crime: The Series >>, a collection dedicated to the individual plight of threatened species.
National Geographic features several short videos, including one devoted to gorillas: Watch video at National Geographic >>
BBC focuses on baby elephants orphaned by poachers who indiscriminately kill both parents: Watch at BBC >>, also captures the plight of Nepal’s threatened rhinos: Watch at BBC >>
In Saving Pench, the International Fund for Animal Welfare teamed with the Wildlife Trust of India to highlight government action. The film shows newly trained and equipped front-line rangers in the Pench Wildlife Reserve. These rangers lead the “Guardians of the Wild Project” to protect diminishing numbers of tigers: Watch at ifaw >>