When a poacher steps into a certain wildlife park in Kenya in the middle of the night, a thermal camera at the perimeter notices the action. Then an algorithm automatically identifies that the heat is coming from a person and not a giraffe, and a team of rangers gets an alert.
The technology—which World Wildlife Fund started testing in two Kenyans parks in March 2016—has already led to more than 25 arrests.
"It allows you to see in total darkness," says Travis Merrell, senior vice president of FLIR, the thermal technology company that donated the equipment to WWF. The cameras can also see through rain, smoke, and fog.
In the Mara Conservancy—home to lions, rhinos, elephants, and other threatened or endangered species—the cameras are mounted on trucks. As rangers drive, a screen inside shows movement of both animals and poachers up to a mile away.
"They go where they're expecting to see poachers, but the camera allows them to see and find them at a much greater distance," says Colby Loucks, director of wildlife conservation at WWF. "Then they walkie talkie to the rest of the rangers who are out in front of them hiding, and just sort of direct them to where the poachers are coming."
In the past, rangers used to hide in the grass, and jump up and try to catch poachers on foot. Most would get away. "There'd be 10 poachers that come in a group and they would be able to identify and chase them, and maybe catch one or two, but the rest would just go and hide and they'd never find them," he says.
Now, the cameras can help locate everyone, and arrest rates have gone from roughly 10-20% to 80-90%. It's also having a deterrent effect. "These guys are like, 'How are you finding us?'" says Loucks. "'What are you doing?' They're confused. We've heard local community leaders saying, 'Don't go into these parks because you will be seen.'"
The new system is also significantly safer for rangers, because it's possible to see how poachers are armed (and, because it's also possible to see animals at a distance, it's easier to avoid surprising a lion or buffalo that might attack).
After the success of the first pilots, and with a new donation of more cameras from FLIR, WWF is rolling out the technology is new parks, and beginning to test the cameras on drones in Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Poaching has dramatically increased in some areas within the last decade. In South Africa, for example, where 13 rhinos were poached in 2007, nearly 1,200 were poached in 2015. Better technology to catch poachers could help tip the balance for some species to survive.
WWF plans to start using the technology in Asia as well. "We want to be in as many places as we can possibly get," says Loucks.
[All Photos: © James Morgan/WWF-US]