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How IoT protects animals, reveals behaviors on World Wildlife Day

IoT and its tracking capabilities are proving invaluable to protect at-risk animals. Image: Pixabay.

Carsten Rhod Gregersen, ITProPortal | March 8, 2021

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Wildlife is at a tipping point. In the 20th century, for example, we lost more than 500 land vertebrate species. However, it is estimated that the world will lose the same amount of species over the next 20 years alone. Through deforestation, overfishing, and poaching, human intervention continues to bring a multitude of species to the brink of extinction. Now, it will take human intervention, with some additional assistance, to save them.

In the dire context of rising global temperatures and increasing land clearing, next-generation technologies offer some hope to protect biodiversity now and into the future, with connected devices tracking keystone species and revealing unique behaviors.

On the eve of World Wildlife Day, March 3, let’s take a closer look at how smart solutions powered by Internet of Things (IoT) help these animals to not only survive tomorrow — but thrive tomorrow.

Tracking rhinos and predicting poachers

First, let’s take a look at poaching, a phenomenon where animals are killed or captured to be sold in the global wildlife trade. This problem is especially detrimental in Africa where, at current poaching rates, elephants, rhinos and other wildlife may be gone within our lifetime. The rhinoceros, for example, is one of the most endangered species in the world with the global wild population currently numbering less than 30,000. This is abysmal considering that roughly 1,000 rhinos are killed by poachers every year for their horns, which can fetch between $30,000 to $100,000 per kilogram on the black market.

While nature sanctuaries and wildlife crusaders endeavor to protect the current population, the costs of employing human guardians to protect a single rhino can reach upwards of $10,000 per year. Therefore, the global connectivity of IoT, coupled with its low power and long battery life, make sensors a perfect solution for monitoring, tracking and protecting these critically endangered animals.

Unlike VHF radio tracking that requires a person to listen to a radio signal, and a directional antenna to physically follow the signal to determine the position of the rhinoceros, connected devices embedded into the horn of the animals allow automated downloading of GPS positions without the need for continuous human monitoring. The trackers, which send three GPS signals per day on a dedicated secure platform, often help game reserves predict where and when the next attack will take place by combining data points from animal movement patterns. Moreover, the devices can help to foretell a breach in a game reserve fence, the sudden acceleration of an animal, inclement weather and more. Going forward technologies such as drones, gunshot sensors and AI are expected to make this solution even more robust.

Nurturing populations with geofencing

Second, let’s consider the difficulty of nurturing animal populations despite deforestation and human encroachment. Reindeer is a traditional herd animal in Norway and provides a vital source of income for the native people. However, reindeer today are considered a vulnerable species with an estimated herd of only 600,000 animals, of which up to 10 percent is lost every year due to killing by wolves and collisions with trains. This latter issue incurs significant economic and ecologic damage, with such train incidents causing an estimated €8.5 million in damage every year.

Again, wireless solutions are proving invaluable in the effort to monitor the location and movement of reindeer herds. A new application monitors the locations of reindeer herds and creates a geofence around rail tracks. This offers real-time alerts to train conductors and herders who can take preventative action before it is too late. Further, reindeer often cross the border between Norway and Sweden, which has at times led to minor international disputes over grazing rights. The ability to geofence animal populations and remotely monitor location can also prevent this issue in the future.

Protection under the sea

Third, let’s take a look under the sea, where connected devices are not only protecting animals but revealing unique insight into their behaviors. Oceanic Whitetip sharks move around the ocean with great efficiency, exploiting physics to maximize their energy surplus for both hunting and downtime. Tracking their movements hasn’t been easy in the past, but device tagging is enabling scientists to look closer and shine a light on the size, swimming location, water temperatures and daily activities of these sharks in the Bahamas.

As well as sensors, the scientists also used cameras for two sharks. The scientists found that sharks tend to behave optimally, controlling their speed constantly as they ascend and descend. One of the sharks, however, was able to travel from 160 meters at 4 meters per second vertically before breaching the surface. Since normal speed for these animals tends to range from 0.6 to 0.7 per second, this was a remarkable finding.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, connected technology is working to protect dugongs from the many dangers of local fishing, destruction of habitat and illegal hunting. Traditionally, conservationists have had to track these sea creatures from the air, which is expensive and not entirely reliable. Today, however, is a vastly different story. Fishermen have now been taught to photograph any dugongs, also known as sea cows, and upload the images to an IoT app. Each image indicates the location of a dugong via GPS and enables a marine not-for-profit group to map the sightings for a clearer idea of the population in the area. In the long term, this data will allow the team to put together recommendations for future protected areas.

Connected devices and World Wildlife Day

It’s exciting to think that this is only the start of using our best technologies to protect our most vulnerable species. All variations of IoT sensor types, from image to pressure and proximity sensors, are becoming cheaper and smaller with scale, and there is plenty of scope to enable the tracking of smaller animals that are also critically endangered, such as the Pangolin.

World Wildlife Day, an initiative from the United Nations to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants, offers an important moment for us to step back and consider the damage that humans are wreaking on this earth. At the same time, it should be used as a collective awakening to the critical, technological weapons that at our disposal in this global fight to save endangered species.