Driven by newly affluent markets in China and the Middle East, the illegal wildlife trade is booming to unprecedented levels. Rhinos have been killed in ever larger numbers—388 in 2012, triple the rate just three years ago—and elephants have endured their worst years of poaching since the 1980s.
There will never be enough rangers or park guards. So conservationists are turning to technology: wildlife cameras streaming images to the world via satellite. Anyone with a smartphone can now monitor images of unsuspecting wildlife—and poachers—in Africa as part of the Instant Wild project. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), backed by a $500,000 Global Impact Award from Google, is rolling out the project to deploy the new generation of park rangers, which are a series of sensitive remote cameras connected to the Internet via satellite.
A handful of the cameras are already in Africa positioned close to watering holes and other wildlife hotspots. Capable of snapping up to 30 photos a day, the cameras transmit images back to park rangers within minutes and sensors detect vehicle vibrations and the sound of gunshots (triangulating the location of suspected poachers). The flash is infrared so that the animals (and the poachers) won't know they're being watched. The original version of the system used a basic cellular connection. But because only a few places enjoyed such connectivity in the world, the cameras are now outfitted with satellite connections, which allow them to stream data and respond to remotely operated settings.
While still in trials, you can already download the InstantWild app and see wildlife in action. Richard Traherne, head of the wireless division at Cambridge Consultants, says 100 more of cameras will arrive in Kenya next year, followed by 250 in 2015. The Zoological Society eventually plans to introduce the system throughout Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Himalaya, and the South Pole. If successful, the trials are intended to attract interest from conservation groups to extend the system further.
App watchers have already spied animals once thought extinct in certain regions, says Traherne, but no poachers have been snared yet. Whether cameras and a world of eyes is enough to catch humans before they catch rare wildlife remains to be seen.