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Meet the women racing to save the northern white rhino from extinction (California)

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Adeline Chen, CNN | March 8, 2020

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SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA: There are only two northern white rhinos left on the planet, and they’re both female. Unless scientists can make a dramatic breakthrough, the entire species will die with those two individuals.

In a nondescript building just north of San Diego, California, the fight to save the northern white rhino is coming down to the wire. However, the battleground here looks less like a scene from a wildlife documentary and more akin to something out of a science fiction novel.

At the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, an army of scientists armed with liquid nitrogen, microscopes, and ultrasound machines is working around the clock to create an unprecedented first in the conservation world: they are looking to turn frozen rhino skin cells into baby rhinos.

It’s not just the science that is groundbreaking, but also the team looking to save this species. Composed mostly of women, the lab is a rarity in a field traditionally dominated by men.

Marlys Houck: Freezing Time

The first step in this conservation effort began more than four and a half decades ago in 1975 when scientists established the institute’s “Frozen Zoo.” In a small room measuring no more than 36 square meters the skin cells of more than 10,000 individuals across 1,100 species sit in giant steel tanks suspended in time, frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Among the collection are the skin samples of 12 northern white rhinos. These are vital to the group’s efforts because there is such a small gene pool of living northern whites.

Original photo as published by CNN: Marlys Houck, curator of the Frozen Zoo.

The population has been decimated by poachers, who target rhinos because of the belief in parts of Asia that their horns can cure various ailments. The two surviving females both live under guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Even though embryos have been produced in an Italian lab using eggs extracted from the pair, any future descendants from this kind of embryo would carry the genes of those two females.

That may not be enough genetic diversity to maintain a stable population. The hope is that the skin samples of those 12 individuals at the Frozen Zoo contain enough diversity to sustain the northern white species long-term.

The arduous task for these scientists is to create a rhino population from those samples.

Marlys Houck is curator of the Frozen Zoo. She graduated high school in 1979, the same year the Frozen Zoo froze its very first northern white rhino skin cell. She later joined the institute to work on the rhino project.

“I was hired specifically to try to make the cells of the rhinos grow better because they were one of the most difficult to grow cell lines,” she told CNN.

Since then, she’s figured out how to successfully grow and freeze the skin cells of the northern white.

The impact of this work is not lost on her. “We’re losing species so rapidly,” she said. “One of the things we can do is save the living cells of these animals before it’s too late.”

“We’re at the forefront of science today,” she added. “If we do everything right … these cells should be here 50 years from now being used for purposes that we can’t even imagine today.”

Marisa Korody: The Science of Stem Cells

Marisa Korody is one of the four scientists tasked with turning these frozen cells into new life. They have to reprogram the frozen skin cells into pluripotent stem cells. In layman’s terms, Korody explains that “stem cells can become any cell type in the body if they’re given the right signals.”

The aim is to ultimately turn the stem cells into sperm and eggs. The ambitious feat has only been achieved in animals by Japanese scientists. While Korody and her team have looked to that research as a road map, she admits that doing the same with rhinos is uncharted territory. “We don’t really know what twists and turns we need to take in order to get from A to B,” she said.

Original photo as published by CNN: Marisa Korody.

“They haven’t even figured out how to do this in humans,” she added. “We have as much information as we possibly can about humans. We have a fraction of that for rhinos.”

Korody says being at the forefront of this kind of science has been a dream job. “This was really the first project that’s trying to apply this type of science to conservation as a whole,” she said.

She may spend most of her time at work looking through the lens of a microscope, but her mind is always on the final goal for the rhinos: “We want to be able to put them back into the wild one day and have them living free.”

Barbara Durrant: Carrying the Future

Because the remaining two female northern white rhinos can’t carry a pregnancy, even if the team can create embryos, the last obstacle is finding rhinos who can carry them to term.

The woman tasked with that job is Barbara Durrant. As the director of reproductive sciences, she’s spent four years studying the reproductive systems of six female southern white rhinos at the institute’s sister facility, the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center.

Though the rhinos at the center are a different species, Durrant says they are the closest relative to the northern white. The aim is to eventually have them be surrogates for northern white embryos.

Original photo as published by CNN: Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive sciences.

On any given day, Durrant can be found conducting ultrasounds to help her understand each rhino’s distinct reproductive cycle. In 2019, two of the center’s females gave birth to southern white babies. Both were conceived via artificial insemination, giving Durrant and the teams working on the rhino project hope for the future.

Durrant believes one reason the project works so well is because there are so many women involved. “Women are naturally collaborative with each other,” she said. “Because we have so many obstacles along the way and challenges and setbacks, we support each other and we have sympathy for each other.”

Houck says women tend to be naturally nurturing. “The cells are living little organisms that we’re growing and tending almost every day, and I think women are drawn to taking care of something and growing it into something more.”

“It’s wonderful leading a team of women, and I really think they’re changing the world,” she added. “People are going to look back and see it was this amazing group of women who quietly, unrecognized, work at this and just get better and better.”

 

How technology is protecting endangered species

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Science and technology No Comments
Sharon Gaudin, Medium | March 3, 2020

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Artificial intelligence, the cloud, and smart cameras are being used to catch poachers and track wildlife populations.

Cambodia is home to 16 globally endangered species, like the Asian elephant, tigers, and leopards. Conservationists there are working with a Harvard computer scientist to stop the poaching that is pushing so many species to the brink of extinction.

It’s just one of a growing number of collaborations bringing technologists and conservationists together to fight to protect wildlife from being wiped off the face of the planet. Environmentalists have long had a daunting challenge ahead of them when it comes to protecting animals from poachers, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. They’re now hoping, though, that technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), drones, GPS trackers, smart cameras, and the cloud could give them the upper hand they’ve been looking for.

“It is horrifying to think about the possibility that we may be leaving a world behind where keystone species like tigers, elephants, and rhinos may just be gone,” says Milind Tambe, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and director of the Center for Research in Computation and Society at Harvard University. “We don’t want to have to tell our children, ‘Well, they’re all gone.’ We don’t want a world like that.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, which coordinates the organization’s environmental activities, the earth is in the midst of a crisis, with 150 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals reportedly going extinct every 24 hours. Biologists say that’s 1,000 times the rate that’s considered natural extinction. And a 2019 U.N. report notes that approximately 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. More recently, research from the University of Arizona suggests that one-third of plant and animal species could be gone in 50 years.

Original photo as published by Medium.com.

Here are some more alarming numbers:

· In 2018, three bird species vanished from the earth.

· In Tanzania, the elephant population has dropped by 20 percent in recent years.

· Because of widespread poaching for their horns, as of 2018, there were only two northern white rhinos — both female and incapable of natural reproduction — left in Kenya.

· An estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory, meat, and body parts.

· Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales, including a little more than 100 breeding females, remain. With so many dying and so few being born, scientists warn that the species may not survive more than another 25 years.

With numbers so staggering and dire, conservationists around the globe increasingly are turning to technologists and tech to protect endangered animals and hopefully save them from extinction. Seeing the plight of many species, tech-savvy people are offering their time and expertise to track animals, analyze their habitats and availability of food, and better understand population dynamics.

It’s not new for wildlife conservationists to draw on technology like cameras and tracking collars. What’s new is the explosion in technologies like AI, machine learning (ML), the Internet of Things, 5G, wireless, and the cloud. And that explosion is touching many industries, including conservation.

“Every industry is going to be changed by it,” says Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. “It’s transforming so much. It only makes sense that it’s transforming wildlife protection. Where before they could never really follow the animals and the paths they take, and the things they’re eating, and how they’re living, now we can see exactly where these animals are and what they’re doing. And think about how much it will advance in the next 10 years.”

Outsmarting the Poachers

Tambe, who for the past 15 years has been working on how AI can benefit society, made a slight turn six or seven years ago when he began to wonder how technology could be used to protect animals.

The computer scientist is the creator and driving force behind Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), predictive AI software geared to analyze massive amounts of data and then use ML, game theory, and mathematical modeling to take on the poachers decimating many species of animals around the world, including Cambodia.

For instance, intensive poaching of both Cambodian tigers and their prey have caused a rapid decline in the big cats. Today, the World Wildlife Fund reports that there are no longer any breeding populations of wild tigers left in the country, making them functionally extinct there. As for wild elephants, it’s generally estimated that only 300 to 600 remain in Cambodia, down from 2,000 in 1995 and 500 to 1,000 in 1999, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

Normally, park rangers and environmentalists study maps trying to figure out where poachers may be laying traps or lying in wait to kill protected animals. The PAWS system goes beyond human gut instinct and crunches data to predict where the poachers will be working, where the animals are in the most danger, and the best patrol routes for the rangers.

Tambe has been extensively testing PAWS in Cambodia. Conservationists there are finding poaching traps five times more today than they were before they began using his AI-based system.

“I kept saying, ‘I think AI can help,’” he says. “Where are the poachers going to hit next? There are thousands of square kilometers in national parks. There are hundreds of rangers. They can’t be everywhere. If we can tell them where they need to be [to stop the poaching], that’s important.”

Now, Tambe’s PAWS system is being adapted to work with 800 global national parks that use SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) software to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation and wildlife law enforcement. With the help of an AI engineer from Microsoft, Tambe has been working for the past six to eight months to integrate PAWS with the SMART software and enable it all to run in the cloud. The system, which so far has been running only on an experimental basis, is scheduled to launch this spring.

“We are honored to be able to contribute,” he says. “Some people think of AI being a technology that might be harmful in some ways, maybe taking jobs away. It’s a surprise to people that you can apply AI to protect wildlife and use it for social good. The gift to us, as AI researchers, has been opening the door to new AI research challenges so we can advance the state of the art in artificial intelligence.”

Saving the Salmon

In the Northern California foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, a group of conservationists, the Friends of Auburn Ravine, has been working to protect the local wild Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon. The salmon’s numbers have been slashed by logging, dams, overfishing, and pollution. Scientists estimate that 29 percent of the Pacific salmon populations have become extinct in the past 240 years.

The group of volunteers set up cameras to record video of the fish as they migrate upstream to spawn every fall and winter. They were trying to collect data on the number of salmon swimming through, to garner support to improve habitat and facilitate natural migration of adult and juvenile salmon.

The problem was that volunteers were sitting and staring at a seemingly endless amount of video to count fish swimming by.

“It’s boring work looking at the videos,” says Brad Cavallo, president of Cramer Fish Sciences and a board member of the Friends of Auburn Ravine. “It’s easy to miss something because you just space out, but estimates are important so we know how to set harvest limits and how the fish are doing.”

Eric Hubbard, a master technologist who has worked at Hewlett Packard Enterprise since 1999, came along and changed that boring, but important, work.

Hubbard says two or three years ago, his dad, who is a volunteer with Friends of Auburn Ravine, told him about video watch parties where volunteers ate pizza and counted fish.

“It was a cool volunteer effort,” says Hubbard. “I saw their enthusiasm and effort, but it hurt me to see them doing it so inefficiently. It took huge amounts of hours to look at videos to count these fish. I knew we could automate this and make it so much easier on them.”

Hubbard, using the annual 60 hours of paid volunteer time he receives from HPE through the company’s community involvement program, HPE Gives, traded out the volunteers’ security cameras, which used proprietary protocols that were difficult to work with, for new digital underwater and overhead cameras — dubbed salmon cams — with standard protocols and formats.

Using the Java programming language, Hubbard wrote 5,000 lines of code to create a software program, called FishSpotter, to detect and document passing fish. Raw digital video is uploaded to the cloud, where FishSpotter processes it. Using advanced image recognition to detect activity and identify salmon, FishSpotter automatically produces short GIF highlights of any passing salmon, so humans can then review it to confirm the fish species.

The 2018–2019 migration season was the first to be monitored with the new digital system.

By eliminating the need to watch this large batch of data, FishSpotter was able to pare down 1.6 terabytes and 2,416 hours of raw data into just 101 gigabytes and 20.4 hours of GIF highlights for volunteers to vet and verify as salmon (or other wildlife or activity). In future seasons, Hubbard hopes to further refine FishSpotter’s image recognition capabilities to narrow this data set of possible suspects down even further to further accelerate insights.

“I live in a real tech bubble,” says Hubbard. “Everyone around me is tech-savvy. I look at these nonprofits and they’re outside that bubble. They don’t necessarily have the expertise to know what’s possible. It’s been very gratifying. Initially, it started out as helping people more than the salmon. Then as I got more involved, I was drawn into how important these fish are.”

Tech to Protect Polar Bears and Rhinos

Colby Loucks, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Program at the World Wildlife Fund U.S., says technology is increasingly a vital tool in wildlife conservation. And as a leader in the organization’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project, which focuses on using cutting-edge technology to fight poaching, he says tech advancements have opened doors.

That’s what led the group to create WildLabs.net, a global online community joining conservationists with technologists, engineers, data scientists, and entrepreneurs. With more than 3,000 active users, the group’s mission is to use technology to tackle conservation issues, like illegal wildlife trade and poaching.

“We had conservationists trying to use technology, but they weren’t technologists by training,” says Loucks. “There were a lot of technologists around the world who have the skill sets, knowledge, and desire to help in conservation. WildLabs.net is about connecting those communities. We’re piecing together innovative ideas between people with a conservation background and a technology background.”

For instance, Loucks says conservationists are combining cameras with ML software trained to distinguish between animals and people. When the system identifies humans, as opposed to zebras or rhinos, passing by a camera, rangers are notified so they can check to see if the people are poachers.

Others in Africa are using thermographic cameras that use infrared radiation to detect elephant and rhino poachers.

Loucks notes that the smart thermal camera technology was installed in 2016 in two different areas of Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park, a site known for its rhino conservation work. The year before the technology was installed, there were 17 attempted poaching events in the park, he says. The year the system was installed, two poachers were caught, and after that, there were no poaching incidents for the rest of the year and none in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, the system was used to catch another four poachers.

“We feel like that is a big success,” says Loucks.

Some scientists are even using environmental DNA (eDNA) technology, which can detect genetic material, such as traces of biological tissue and mucus, obtained directly from environmental samples like soil, sediment, and water. Loucks explains that scientists studying polar bears can scoop samples from streams or footprints in the Arctic snow. From that, they can pull up DNA and use that information to identify what the bears have been eating and even identify individual bears.

“The dream is that you might not see a bear, but if you get a polar bear footprint, you could still know quite a lot about it, which would be a big leap forward for tracking polar bears and seeing how climate change is impacting them,” says Loucks. “It is an exciting time to be in the wildlife conservation space right now. We’ve seen a lot of developments and efforts using technologies to solve problems.”

 

Tech Companies Take Down 3 Million Online Listings for Trafficked Wildlife (United States)

By Antipoaching, Illegal trade, Science and technology One Comment

IFAW | March 2, 2020

Online technology companies in the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online reported removing or blocking over three million listings for endangered and threatened species and associated products from their online platforms to date. These listings included live tigers, reptiles, primates and birds for the exotic pet trade, as well as products derived from species like elephants, pangolins and marine turtles.

Offline and in the Wild a report released today about progress made by companies involved in the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), TRAFFIC and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)-convened coalition, finds that efforts taken by these companies are helping to shut down the cloud-based trade routes cybercriminals rely on for exploiting wildlife.

“eBay has been fighting online wildlife trafficking on our marketplace for over a decade,” said Mike Carson, Director of Global Policy and Regulatory Management at eBay. “We’re collaborating with government agencies, NGOs, industry peers and members of the eBay community to help us enforce our Animal and Wildlife Products policy in alignment with the Coalition’s wildlife policy framework, and it’s working. In 2019, we blocked or removed over 165,000 listings globally that are prohibited under this policy.”

The Coalition’s progress has resulted from strengthened wildlife policies, an increase in staff ability to detect potential illegal wildlife products and live wild animals, regular monitoring and data sharing from wildlife experts, reports sent in by volunteers through the Coalition’s Wildlife Cyber Spotter Program, enhanced algorithms—thanks to key search word monitoring and collation—and shared learning.

“Criminal networks are taking advantage of internet platforms at the expense of the rarest species nature has to offer,” said Crawford Allan, Senior Director for TRAFFIC at WWF. “But the vastness of the internet presents a challenge for law enforcement to regulate. The online companies in our Coalition now have the smarts and tools to fight back against wildlife trafficking online, and can help ease the burden on law enforcement.”

The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online was born out of the global proliferation of internet access and resulting shift in illegal wildlife trade transactions from physical to online markets. The extensive number of listings removed by the Coalition’s second anniversary demonstrates both the long-term effectiveness of the partnership and the continued commitment of the companies to prevent wildlife trafficking on their platforms.

According to Tania McCrea-Steele, International Project Manager, Wildlife Crime at IFAW, “Uniting online technology companies is critical in the fight against wildlife cybercrime as wildlife traffickers are abusing the anonymity of the internet to exploit endangered wildlife. Tragically, you can find elephant ivory, pangolin scales, live tiger cubs, live birds and reptiles and more, all for sale on your smart phone. The online technology companies are a core part of the solution as they are able to work at an unprecedented global scale and disrupt illegal wildlife trafficking.”

In addition to blocking or removing illegal wildlife trade related information, Coalition companies have launched user engagement initiatives to promote wildlife conservation reaching millions of internet users.

“Wildlife crime is a widely recognized global problem which demands a global solution,” said Siyao, Security Expert at Alibaba. “The Coalition provides a platform for online technology companies to contribute to this solution together. At Alibaba, we share our lessons learned and continuously learn from other Coalition members on how to better curb and prevent wildlife trafficking online by investing in innovative technology and engaging the public to join the fight for wildlife.”

Individuals can join the fight against wildlife cybercrime and support the efforts of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online by not buying wildlife products and reporting suspicious wildlife listings online to companies. Prohibited wildlife products found online can be flagged for removal athttps://www.endwildlifetraffickingonline.org/.

WWF, IFAW and TRAFFIC train citizen science volunteers on how to identify prohibited wildlife products online through the Coalition’s Wildlife Cyber Spotter Program. So far, Coalition Cyber Spotters in the U.S., Germany and Singapore have flagged over 4,000 prohibited listings for sale online. These listings have been removed in real time by Coalition company enforcement teams. Through the program, Cyber Spotters have helped uncover new seller keywords and identify wildlife trafficking trends that have helped companies’ ongoing monitoring efforts.

Interested individuals can sign up for the Wildlife Cyber Spotter Program at www.endwildlifetraffickingonline.org/get-involved.

Conservation, technology boosted tourism

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Illegal trade, Science and technology No Comments
Lilian Kinyua, The Daily Nation | March 3, 2020

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Falling wildlife numbers are driven by causes ranging from poaching and illegal trade to disease, habitat destruction and other effects linked to climate change. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates the illegal wildlife trade to be worth about $20 billion a year, underlining the scale of the issue.

Elephant tusks, rhino horn and pangolin scales are among the goods predominantly trafficked from Africa with the continent’s iconic species being illegally commoditised by an increasingly sophisticated poaching industry.

And now, several African countries are not only deploying high-tech solutions but looking to upgrade their tourism appeal through unique, sustainable wildlife exploration offerings.

Original photo as published by Daily Nation: Zebras at Lewa Conservancy. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Technology

Technological innovation has proven a vital tool in wildlife conservation efforts. Technology has enabled conservationists to better understand wildlife, as well as the threats it faces.

In Kenya, the Ol Pejeta conservancy, in partnership with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Liquid Telecom and Arm, last year launched a state-of-the-art wildlife protection technology laboratory.

Ol Pejeta is home to two of the world’s few remaining northern white rhinos and takes the lead in black rhino conservation.

There, rhinos can now be fitted with horn implants for real-time tracking, replacing the bulky traditional collars.

Conservationists can now monitor all animals 24 hours a day, as well as track their health, body temperatures and migratory patterns.

Poaching

The Kifaru Rising project — a multi-year collaboration between the WWF and thermal camera manufacturer FLIR Systems — will deploy thermal imaging technology to eliminate rhino poaching in 10 parks in Kenya by 2021. The cameras have heat sensors capable of detecting tiny differences in temperature, making it easy to detect experienced poachers, who often work at night.

According to the WWF, when the project was piloted at the Maasai Mara national park in 2016, some 160 poachers were arrested in two years.

As governments in Sub-Saharan Africa prioritise infrastructure and industrialisation, wildlife’s contribution to GDP and sustainable growth, primarily through responsible or high-end tourism, cannot be overlooked.

Rwanda’s unique approach to developing its gorilla tourism industry has turned it into one of the most upmarket holiday destinations on the continent. Permits for the experience for non-residents cost $1,500 and, despite the hefty price tag, visitors to the gorilla hotspot have increased by over 80 per cent over the past decade. The industry is estimated to generate $500 million annually.

Tourism

Recognising the revenue-generating potential of sustainable wildlife tourism could drive more robust government commitment to protecting it.

The crux of such an endeavour lies in seamless inter-agency cooperation, backed by technological innovation, and is premised on collaboration with revenue authorities, customs departments and law enforcement more broadly.

Such synergies, coupled with the potential for regional information and best practice exchange, can prove to be game changers in wildlife protection.

Ms Kinyua is a senior communications and sustainability consultant at Africa Practice East Africa Ltd. lkinyua@africapractice.com.

 

Tech deployment sees rhino poaching decline in SA

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Admire Moyo, IT Web | February 5, 2020

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Technology has been hailed for playing a critical role in the fight against rhino poaching in SA.

This emerged yesterday in a Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries report on rhino poaching in the country in 2019.

According to the department, rhino poaching in SA continues to decline as additional steps are taken by government to ensure the crime is effectively dealt with.

The department says in 2018, 769 rhino were killed for their horn in SA. During 2019, rhino poaching continued to decline, with 594 rhino poached nationally during the year.

This decline can be attributed to a combination of measures implemented in line with government’s strategy, including improved capabilities to react to poaching incidents linked to better situational awareness and deployment of technology, improved information collection and sharing among law enforcement authorities, says the department.

Original photo as published by IT Web.

Solutions galore
Tech companies that have been involved in the fight against rhino poaching in SA include MTN, Cisco, Dimension Data, IBM and Microsoft, among others.

The companies have run a pilot project since November 2015 in a private reserve outside the Kruger National Park, reducing rhino poaching incidents by 96%.

Non-profit organisation Peace Parks Foundation is using Microsoft Azure-enabled artificial intelligence technology to help fight against the scourge.

Mobile operator MTN and US-based computing giant IBM deployed an Internet of things solution at the Welgevonden Nature Reserve in Limpopo to improve conservation efforts in and around SA.

Eutelsat Communications and Sigfox Foundation partnered on what they call the “Now Rhinos Speak” project for the protection of the endangered rhinoceros population in Africa.

Using Sigfox’s very low-speed network, the Sigfox Foundation has designed and implemented a remote tracking solution for rhinos that uses GPS sensors fitted in the horn of each animal to send positioning data to a secure online platform via Eutelsat satellite resources.

Law enforcement aspects
Minister of environment, forestry and fisheries Barbara Creecy says the steps to address rhino poaching and wildlife crime across the country are presently aligned to the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros as well as the principles set out in the draft National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking (NISCWT), which will be taken to Cabinet for consideration in the first half of this year.

The NISCWT was a recommendation of the Committee of Inquiry into whether SA should table a recommendation for the legal trade, or not, of rhino horn to the 17th Conference of Parties to the Convention on the Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora in 2016.

It aims to strengthen the law enforcement aspects of the successful multi-disciplinary approach – the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros – and broadens the scope to combat other wildlife trafficking, not only rhino poaching.

“Because wildlife trafficking constitutes a highly sophisticated form of serious transnational organised crime that threatens national security, the aim is to establish an integrated strategic framework for an intelligence-led, well-resourced, multidisciplinary and consolidated law enforcement approach to focus and direct law enforcement’s ability supported by the whole of government and society,” says Creecy.

“A decline in poaching for five consecutive years is a reflection of the diligent work of the men and women who put their lives on the line daily to combat rhino poaching, often coming into direct contact with ruthless poachers.”

Despite the 2 014 incursions and poacher activities recorded in the park during the year, a total of 327 rhino were lost as a result of poaching in the Kruger National Park (KNP) during 2019.

With regard to elephant poaching, the department reports that 31 elephant have been poached in SA in 2019 – 30 animals in the KNP and one in Mapungubwe National Park.

This is a decrease in the number of elephant poached in 2018, when 71 were killed for their tusks.

Since the last report on the rhino poaching situation and efforts being made to address the crime, rhino horn samples have been received for analysis from Vietnam to determine if the horns confiscated are linked to crimes in South Africa.

The Hawks have also received good co-operation from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan in their efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.

The virtual wild (South Africa)

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Levi Letsoko, Screen Africa | January 20, 2020

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The Southern African rhino and pangolin populations may have found a new hero in Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, after he set out to add more technological muscle to the fight against the poaching of a threatened species. Armed with high quality virtual reality (VR) centred experiences, Grech-Cumbo tells the story in a manner that provokes the viewer to action.

Since being lured by the possibilities presented by fusing technological advancements and creative endeavours, Ulrico Grech-Cumbo – the founder of Ambrosia XR and (subsequently) Habitat XR – continues to create ground-breaking productions that raise awareness around issues of nature conservation and the protection of endangered species.

After almost a decade of exploring and applying fast-innovating immersive technologies in his productions, Grech-Cumbo harbours very strong convictions about why technology has a bigger role to play in advancing the ideals of society.

He says: “We believe that, in the modern world, people have become critically disconnected from nature due to many factors including urbanisation, habitat loss and technology.”

“Ironically, we believe that technology can help reconnect us to our natural world in a very meaningful way. It’s all about using the power of personalised empathy to foster love and respect for animals and environments that most people will never get to experience in person.”

Original photo as published by Screen Africa. Photo credit: Wendy Panaino.

Virtual Reality Untamed

Presenting content through virtual reality has innate advantages that are exclusive to this technology. It has the power to involve the viewer in a way that compels them to react in a very active manner due to the experience being akin to a confrontation.

It is no surprise that the impact of immersive technologies is already making a visible dent in conservation-led wildlife experiences just as much as in other sectors – such as brand experience and entertainment – that Grech-Cumbo has his hand in (through his Ambrosia XR Agency).

“Sadly, places we call ‘nature’ today are reserved for a very privileged few. Habitat XR produces some revenue-generating work for conservation non-profits like WWF and Conservation International, as well as original self-funded nature experiences, too,” says Grech-Cumbo.

“Our goal is simple; it is to re-connect people with nature through immersive technology,” he enthuses.

Growing a Trend

Immersive technologies are a relatively new phenomenon, and their popularity continues to grow internationally and more so their applications. More and more enthusiasts are consistently finding new ways of bringing the tech to the fore.

Spearheading the trend in South Africa, Grech-Cumbo is very high up on the list of those diversifying the opportunities that are presented by XR, by expanding the need for it in both the commercial and not-for-profit spheres.

The former founder of Deep VR believes that it is imperative not to under-value the necessity of great content over our enthusiasm for the technology.

“There is very little good VR content out there. If we care about the future of the format, we have to contribute to the body of content that already exists.”

“As conservationists at heart, we want to use these experiences in ways that can change attitudes and behaviours for everyone that has the opportunity of witnessing our work,” he adds.

Ideally, Grech-Cumbo aims to establish Habitat XR as the world’s preeminent immersive studio with a strong focus on wildlife and nature conservation.

Rewild and Relocated

With numerous wildlife productions under the belt, Habitat XR continues to break the mould with more headline-worthy projects. It was inevitable for the company to pursue the rhino conservation conversation.

The bleak future that is faced by the rhino population did not in fail in plucking at the heart strings of the conservationists at Habitat XR. Grech-Cumbo assembled a team that came up with a new way of tackling the problem.

The refreshed approach was not only in the medium used but also in the way the story of the species is told.

“For a long time, we’ve been wanting to do something on the uniquely South African rhino poaching crisis. A lot of the stories out there have their focus on the same part of the narrative: the front-lines, the poachers and anti-poaching,” he says.

He adds: “We heard about the trans-location of black rhino from SA to Chad and decided to focus on a much broader part of the problem – range diversity. We applied to SANParks to be let on the team and they agreed.”

The shoots for Rewild were conducted first at a game reserve in the North West (for the identification and capture process) and then the Addo Elephant National Park. The rhinos were then placed at Zakouma National Park in the Republic of Chad.

“We’re using a combination of four different cameras to capture these projects. We tend to prefer stereoscopic (3D) 360, so we filmed most of Rewild on a Kandao Obisidan R,” says Grech-Cumbo.

“There were shots where we knew the black rhinos could destroy them, so we switched to the Insta360 Pro since it would be cheaper to replace.”

The Virtual Pangolin

Although not as popular as many other endangered species, the pangolin also faces a disastrous future if left unprotected. The team at Habitat XR made it their mission to diversify their attention on the animal through another virtual reality production titled the Predicament of the Pangolin.

In reality, the pangolin is undoutedly the most trafficked animal in the world at this point.

“Pangolins are incredibly elusive – not even our in-house game ranger had seen one in 12 years of working in the field.

“An opportunity came up to film some that were being researched in the wild at Tswalu and we thought it would be an incredibly cool VR experience to hang out with these iconic and little-understood animals to learn about how they are the subject of a depressing amount of human damage.”

Due to the difficulty of pinning down pangolins, the team opted to film the project in confined spaces. The team opted to employ a two-lens GoPro Fusion camera in order to attempt capturing overlapping visuals and sounds.

In all, the crew managed to snap 55 shots using smaller monoscopic cameras but they might have to cut down on the number of scenes they’ll use once post-production resumes.

Future Conservation Tech

Grech-Gumbo expresses with great vigour that immersive technologies will continue to innovate and change the landscape of the film industry. Due to virtual reality being a growing medium, the improvements that will happen to cameras will have a direct impact on the look and feel of VR experiences.

“In the future, the cameras will capture scenes at much higher resolutions and frame rates and that will probably bring in changes to how we capture light,” he says.

“VR is going to spur a whole new breed of cinematic hardware. Volumetric VR is another trend to look out for – it combines 3D scanning with traditional video capture to create life-like, live action experiences you can walk through wearing a headset,” he concludes.

TECH CHECK

· Kandao Obsidian

· Insta360

· ProSennheiser Ambeo mic

· Zoom F8 recorder

· GoPro Fusion

· Rode rifle mic

REWILD key crew

· Written & directed by: Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

· Filmed by: Jared Reid, Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

· Edited by: Telmo dos Reis; Devan Lowery

· Audio by: Sam Mahlalela

A PREDICAMENT OF PANGOLINS key crew

· Story by: Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

· Written & directed by: Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

· Filmed by: Jared Reid; Devan Lowery; Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

· Edited by: Devan Lowery

· Colourist: Michele Wilson

· Spatial audio by: Axel Drioli

 

#BizTrends2020: Technologies and tactics in curbing wildlife poaching (South Africa)

By Antipoaching, Science and technology No Comments
Nicholus Funda, BizCommunity | January 10, 2010

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Generally in South Africa, criminals control the night. Technology is a tool that is used in protected areas (national parks, provincial, municipal and private nature reserves) for detecting suspected poachers or criminals. It can be used to empower protected area management to claim a fraction of the night.

When it is working, it can act as a force multiplier because it can be active 24/7. Information provided by technology, in general, is accurate in terms of time, position, altitude and other variables. Protected area agencies must be aware that anti-poaching technology is changing rapidly and they must be prepared to adapt to those changes.

Most technologies are designed for fighting crime in urban areas which are smaller in size with high human densities, and developed mainly from the Northern Hemisphere countries where climatic conditions are not the same. In rural areas, human population is low, bigger areas are to be covered, and there is usually poor connectivity. These conditions also require high power retention technologies.

These challenges impact on limited resources such as budget and manpower in protected areas. Bringing these technologies into rural areas is costly and at times some of the technologies are not viable in these areas. These challenges call for prioritisation based on the threats and the value of the environmental assets.

Types of Technologies Used in Protected Areas

Nicholus Funda, chief ranger at SANParks’ Kruger National Park.

With a wide range of activities taking place in protected areas, including wildlife, landscapes and human activities (tourism, counter-poaching, research), technology must be able to differentiate between friendly forces and enemies.

Game such as elephants can uproot foreign objects, hyenas can bite cables and rhino can rub themselves against anchor posts. Some of the assets also share some characteristics that are similar to human beings e.g. same temperature (for thermal detection) at different times of the night – such as termite mounds and certain species of trees, as well as shape, and walking patterns.

There are five main types of technologies used in protected areas:

· Personal technologies: In some protected areas, personal technologies are a standard part of the operation, including activities such as law enforcement and guiding. For example, in protected areas with potentially dangerous animals, such as hippo, buffalo, elephant, lions and leopards, firearms are used to protect human lives.

· Night vision technologies: Poachers walk around mostly at night to avoid easy detection by rangers and exploit cooler temperatures, particularly in the lowveld of South Africa. Night vision technologies can be used to detect and deter poachers when visibility is low at night.

· Mobile technologies: These include air support, tracking devices such as GPS, cyber trackers, scanners, command and control technologies such as cellphones and radios, perimeter technologies such as seismic and magnetic cables, area-specific technologies such as trap cameras, as well as airborne sensors.

Technology forms part of the game changers in counter poaching and includes canines, air-mobility and field personnel. In the Kruger National Park, we are making headway with technology, however no technology can replace troops on the ground.

 

Tourists’ safari selfies get lots of likes . . . from poachers

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
Jane Flanagan, The Times | January 2, 2020

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Safari tourists bragging on social media about rare sightings of endangered animals in the Kruger National Park are unwittingly leading poachers to the rhinos and elephants that are under threat.

A rise in selfies and online boasting has also led to animals being killed on the South African reserve’s roads as visitors speed to grab the best videos and photographs “to gain views and following”, Ike Phaahla, a park spokesman, said.

Kruger National Park officials are now considering jamming its phone signal to stop holidaymakers from advertising the locations of the endangered creatures.

Original photo as published by The Times: Officials in the Kruger National Park in South Africa are considering blocking mobile signals to protect the location of endangered animals. (ALAMY)

“I think people would be shocked to know that their tips on sightings are being monitored by poachers,” Mr Phaahla added. “There can be terrible consequences for this technology and we are talking to experts to see what can be done to curb irresponsible behaviour. Cutting off the signal might end up being the answer.”

More than half of the 8,000 rhinos poached in South Africa between 2008 and 2018 were killed in the Kruger Park and adjacent private reserves. Elephant poaching in the park, which is roughly the size of Belgium, surged to a record high in 2018, with 71 killed for their ivory.

In recent weeks, three antelopes were killed by speeding motorists. The animals often laze on the warmth of the tarmac to rest between hunting and grazing. In November, a giraffe was killed when it was hit by a racing minibus and then catapulted on to the hired vehicle of a Swiss visitor who later died from his injuries. The speed limit on the park’s 1,900-mile road network is up to 30 miles per hour, depending on the quality of the surface.

The park first opened its gates 120 years ago and now draws more than 1.6 million visitors a year. A YouTube channel dedicated to the best Kruger park sightings captured by tourists and rangers has more than a million subscribers. A phone app providing real-time updates from the park with GPS co-ordinates has been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

Yet the mobbing of good sightings — such as a lion feeding on prey or herds of elephants — has led to traffic jams, road rage and tourists taking dangerous risks to see the event for themselves. Under pressure from tourists, rangers are abusing the radio network, which should be used only in emergencies, to share information. The so-called Kruger Park idiots channel on YouTube compiles some of the most hair-raising videos of reckless behaviour.

Mr Phaala said: “Until we can find a solution, we are calling for people to take their time, enjoy the scenery and peace and quiet and not rely on their phones to enhance their experience.”

In Western Australia, however, the authorities are actively encouraging visitors to get close to its wildlife. The prospect of selfies with the province’s famous quokkas, a species of marsupial whose “cheerful” demeanour has earned it the label “the happiest animal in the world” has become a key strategy to boost tourism.

When the tennis star Rafael Nadal, shared a selfie with a quokka on Rottnest Island, near Perth, with his 22 million followers on Instagram, Paul Papalia, the state tourism minister, predicted it would “supercharge the attraction of Western Australia’s slice of paradise globally”.

 

Kruger National Park considers new technology rules to protect visitors and animals

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Jack Guy, CNN | January 3, 2020

See link for photo & 22-minute video.

Officials from Kruger National Park in South Africa are considering new rules after a spate of incidents that have raised concerns about the impact of tourism.

At more than 7,500 square miles — almost the same size as Slovenia — Kruger is one of Africa’s biggest game reserves.

It’s a famous safari spot that is hugely popular with visitors, with an extensive network of paved roads that make it accessible even to two-wheel-drive vehicles.

However the popularity of the park, which received 1.8 million visitors in 2019, is causing problems, including traffic accidents.

The southern part of the park, which is closest to major population centers such as Pretoria and Johannesburg, is subject to “considerable pressure” due to increasing visitor numbers, according to a 2018 paper in the African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure.

In November, a tourist minibus struck a giraffe, which then fell onto another vehicle, seriously injuring the driver. The collision killed the giraffe and the driver later died from his injuries, prompting warnings from park authorities to give the animals right of way.

And poaching remains a problem, with a total of 1,873 poaching incidents in different parks across South Africa in 2018, according to a report from the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs.

Potential changes would attempt to deal with the impact of mobile technology, which is reportedly contributing to overcrowding and reckless behavior, as well as enabling poaching.

Anthony Colia, CEO of tour company MoAfrika Tours, told CNN that mobile apps that reveal the location of animals are one source of problems.

Colia said some apps — including one called Latest Sightings — allow users to take and upload photos of animals and tag their locations, which encourages other visitors to race to see the animals for themselves.

“It causes absolute mayhem — especially traffic jams,” said Colia.

Isaac Phaahla, Kruger National Park’s marketing and communications manager, agrees that the apps encourage people to rush around the park in search of animals.

And, he said, a radio channel meant to be reserved for emergency use is being abused by drivers sharing information on the location of animals.

Nadav Ossendryver, CEO and founder of the Latest Sightings app, told CNN that its aim is to help people see animals, and it does send visitors to certain locations in some cases.

However Latest Sightings has certain features — such as a traffic rating for each sighting and the speed limit on the roads in the area — that are designed to help users make responsible decisions about visiting a sighting, according to Ossendryver.

“We have no control over how people use the app,” he said and also emphasized that the company is not responsible for enforcing the rules of the park.

And it’s not just tourists who are using technology to locate animals — poachers are using the same apps to gather intelligence on where to find sought-after animals such as rhinos and elephants, “thereby compromising the security arrangements in the park,” said Phaahla.

But Ossendryver maintains that these are “unsubstantiated reports” and there is no evidence that Latest Sightings is used by poachers.

Because of concerns about poaching, the app doesn’t allow rhino sightings to be reported, and while elephant photos can be uploaded, location information is not included, he said.

And Colia said he believes other tech services could be to blame, telling CNN that visitors should be reminded to switch off geo-tagging when visiting the park.

“Even by posting a photo on Facebook, when the geo-tagging is activated, can result in anyone seeing exactly where the photo was taken,” said Colia.

“Technology on a mobile phone is very easy to hack. This might be used to easily identify endangered wildlife, like the rhino.”

Ossendryver also pointed out the fact that many of the around 1,000 daily users on Latest Sightings are based overseas, rather than inside the park, and the percentage of them using the app to find sightings is relatively low.

“We’re not the only cause,” he said, pointing out that park authorities raised concerns over the influence of apps in 2016 but ultimately decided against changing the rules.

Ossendryver also emphasized the benefits of Latest Sightings, including its use in collating reports of animals caught in snares.

With visitor numbers likely to increase, it appears that something needs to change to allow people to enjoy Kruger without endangering animals.

According to Colia, park officials need to be more active in enforcing park rules.

“The only way the Kruger management can ensure visitor and animal safety is by increasing patrols both on foot and by having access to dedicated vehicles,” he said.

Park authorities are considering a number of options, including restricting access to certain apps, in order to improve the situation, according to Phaahla.

He did not reveal any further details of the plan but said park authorities are seeking expert advice.

“The Kruger National Park Management Committee will apply its mind in the new year and make a pronouncement,” he said.

 

African Parks’ most hopeful conservation news in 2019

By Conservation, Land conservation, Science and technology No Comments
African Parks / PR Newswire | December 18, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG: Successful conservation interventions are critical, now more than ever, to improve the trajectory of the planet’s biodiversity and the state of its ecosystems, as highlighted in the IPBES global biodiversity assessment published this year. Well managed protected areas are vital anchors of sanctuary, stability and opportunity for millions of people and countless species.

With the largest and most ecologically diverse portfolio of parks under management by any one organisation across Africa, African Parks’ goal is to realize the ecological, social and economic value of these landscapes, preserving ecological functions, delivering clean air, healthy watersheds, carbon sequestration, food security, and better health for millions of people.

Here is some of their most hopeful news from 2019:

  • Zimbabwe’s exceptional Matusadona National Park which abuts Lake Kariba became the 16th park to join African Parks’ management portfolio. Through partnership with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, they will fully restore the park as a leading wildlife sanctuary for the region.
  • One of history’s largest international black rhino translocations was concluded with the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, using source populations in South Africa to boost Malawi’s population to create a valuable range state for the critically endangered species.
  • The largest ever transport of rhinos from Europe to Africa was undertaken, releasing five Eastern black rhinos, bred successfully by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Ex Situ Programme, into Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, helping to build a sustainable wild population of this subspecies numbering only around 1,000 in Africa.
  • Cheetahs were introduced to Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi to form a crucial founder population and help grow the range of the vulnerable big cat; and almost 200 buffalo were released into Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands to restock one of the continent’s greatest wetland landscapes.
  • 100 years of conservation was celebrated with the Barotse Royal Establishment and Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) in Liuwa Plain National Park with the official opening of the world class King Lewanika Lodge. The event was testament to their 16-year partnership to restore the ecosystem, promote livelihoods development, provide employment, education, and support to thousands of people, while seeing the park emerge as one of the world’s top travel destinations hailed by The New York Times and TIME Magazine.
  • TIME Magazine featured Chad’s Zakouma National Park on its list of World’s Greatest Places 2019, and Akagera National Park in Rwanda continued to see remarkable strides in tourism development, with Wilderness Safaris opening the gorgeous luxury tented Magashi Camp.
  • With several partners they have installed the most advanced technology available, from Vulcan’s EarthRanger, ESRI, Smart Parks, and others, to improve real-time monitoring of wildlife and to support law enforcement within the parks.

These advancements are only possible because of the partnerships with national governments who entrust African Parks with managing their natural heritage. Their shared vision of a future for people and wildlife is realised through the generous funding received from a global community of committed supporters, including anchor donors: Acacia Conservation Fund (ACF), Adessium Foundation, Arcus Foundation, Dutch Postcode Lottery, European Union, Fondation des Savanes Ouest-Africaines (FSOA), Fondation Segré, Government of Benin, Howard G. Buffett Foundation, MF Jebsen Conservation Foundation, National Geographic Society, Oppenheimer Philanthropies, People’s Postcode Lottery, Save the Elephants and Wildlife Conservation Network’s Elephant Crisis Fund, Stichting Natura Africae, The Walton Family Foundation, The Wildcat Foundation, The Wyss Foundation, WWF-the Netherlands, WWF-Belgium, UK Aid, U.S. Department of State and USAID.

Overall, these gains are only possible because of the myriad support received, from events to charitable auctions and races, recommendations to friends, travel to the parks, bequests and helping to tell the story of the urgency of the conservation work, and to generous board members in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the U.S. and South Africa.

Source: African Parks

Related links: www.africanparks.org