Rangers turn to technology to save Africa's wildlife

In a novel approach to wildlife conservancy, a new program called PAWS makes use of video game software to predict areas where poachers roam.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Ugandan Wildlife Authority rangers escort visitors during the tracking of endangered mountain gorillas from the Bitukura family, inside a forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, west of Uganda's capital Kampala.

Technology is playing a part in the campaign to track down poachers and protect endangered species in Africa’s embattled reserves. 

A US funded initiative is applying technology used in the virtual world of online poker and other computer games to create PAWS (Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security) a program that aims to assist in the fight against poaching. 

“We’re trying to predict future poacher attacks or where poachers may strike next based on what we have observed in the past on our patrols,” Professor Milind Tambe from the University of Southern California, who is leading the initiative said. 

PAWS, which is being tested in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park applied artificial intelligence and game theory algorithms to predict the movement of poachers, helping rangers to find illegal hunters and their animal traps. 

Workers attempt to bring a tranquilized rhino to the ground before dehorning in an effort to deter the poaching of one of the world's endangered species, at a farm outside Klerksdorp, in the north west province, South Africa.

The system helps rangers map routes in the same way mathematical computer models predict how a rational human reacts and create opponents for online poker and other games.

Initial PAWS testing has also taken place in Malaysia, and the program has been funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Army Research Office.

PAWS faces its own challenges, however.

Poor mobile and internet connectivity in the park could prevent the rangers from using the software accurately and in real-time.

It could also bring rangers even closer to poachers who have proved ready to turn their guns on the authorities elsewhere.

In Virunga National Park, in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, 150 rangers have been killed in the past decade.

A Hard Battle 

Across Africa, a battle against poaching is raging but often being lost.

African elephant numbers, for example, fell by 20 percent between 2006 and 2015 because of a surge in ivory poaching, according to conservationists.

There have been some successes.

Uganda has seen its elephant population recover after years of chaotic rule and dictatorship.

But officials say poaching is back on the rise.

A ranger gestures before performing a post mortem on a rhino after it was killed for its horn by poachers in South Africa's Kruger National Park, August 27, 2014.

"Elephant poaching has started to increase in the last five years, which is a major concern, and that's linked to the global price of ivory," said Andy Plumptre, director of the Albertine Rift Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Uganda.

The problem is not just big time poachers seeking ivory, which can sell for $1,000 a kilogram or more.

Illegal hunters are sometimes locals seeking meat to eat or sell to pay school fees.

Killing game, meanwhile, has knock-on effects. It destroys prey chased by carnivores such as lions and leopards, causing their numbers to drop too.