British satellite telecommunications company, Inmarsat, has joined forces with a Washington D.C non-profit organisation called RESOLVE to put its satellites to work on behalf of endangered wildlife in Africa. The initiative will use artificial intelligence (AI), satellites, and local cameras to apprehend poachers.
RESOLVE has developed a technological approach to defending wildlife. The non-profit has developed a system called TrailGuard AI, which is being funded and deployed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and National Geographic Society in curbing the menace of wildlife poaching, reports Greg Nichols in a publication on ZDNet.
TrailGuard AI uses an AI-powered camera to detect humans in nature reserves (recording 97 per cent accuracy) and instantly transmit images to park rangers’ facilities, enabling them to identify would-be poachers and intervene. Inmarsat’s network plays a key role. The concept relies on the company’s L-band, global, mobile satellite communications network to ensure the transmission of these images to rangers, compensating for the lack of reliable terrestrial connectivity in most remote nature reserves. TrailGuard AI utilises Inmarsat’s mobile BGAN terminals, which are simple to set up and connect to the units, and can also withstand unfavourable weather and ecological conditions.
“Wildlife poaching in Africa is at epidemic levels, but despite the best efforts of dedicated rangers, the large park boundaries and rough terrain mean that they often only find out about poaching when it’s too late,” says Dr. Eric Dinerstein, Director of WildTech and the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions Program at RESOLVE. “The TrailGuard solution acts as an early warning system, transitioning ranger teams into fully mobile, rapid-response units so that they can respond to would-be poachers and stop them in their tracks.”
Wild animals are being poached on a massive scale, with millions of individual animals of thousands of species worldwide killed or captured from their native habitats. Poaching poses a growing threat to elephants, rhinos, and other charismatic animals. Some animals, such as birds, reptiles, and primates, are captured live so that they can be kept or sold as exotic pets. Slaughtered animals, on the other hand, have commercial value as food, jewelry, decor, or traditional medicine. The ivory tusks of African elephants, for example, are carved into trinkets or display pieces. The meat of apes, snakes, and other bush animals is considered a delicacy in parts of Africa.
Poaching has devastating consequences for wildlife. In some instances, it’s the primary reason why an animal faces a risk of extinction. This is the case with the African elephant, more than 100,000 of which were killed between 2014 and 2017 for ivory. Poaching has also had a catastrophic impact on rhinos, with more than a thousand slaughtered a year for their horns. There’s also the tragic ways in which poaching affects people. In Africa, nearly 600 rangers charged with protecting wildlife were gunned down by poachers between 2009 and 2016 while in the line of duty. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, at least 170 rangers have been killed during the past two decades.
The first deployment of the TrailGuard solution, at the Singita-Grumeti reserve in Tanzania in 2018, resulted in the arrest of around 30 poachers and the seizure of quantities of bushmeat. Having identified the 100 parks with the highest risk of poaching, RESOLVE aims to deploy the TrailGuard AI devices at ten ‘chokepoints’ – poacher intrusion hotspots – within each of these parks by the end of 2020.
Alastair Bovim, Vice President (Managed Services) of Inmarsat Enterprise, commented: “We are delighted to be joining forces with RESOLVE to help support sustainability and biodiversity in Africa. Our collaboration will ensure that when TrailGuard detects a poacher, rangers are notified immediately of their exact location and can initiate an effective response, no matter how remote the environment…Africa’s poaching problem won’t be solved overnight, but if we can prevent even a small proportion of attacks, it will have a hugely positive impact on the continent’s incredible wildlife.”
Jerry Chiemeke is an editor, writer and mental health advocate. His works have appeared in Bellanaija, True Nollywood Stories, Music In Africa and The Guardian, among others. Jerry is the winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Reviews. He is a Senior Editor at Space in Africa.