Picture a conservation biologist in the savannah, you’d be forgiven for imagining a scientist in camouflage fatigues with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a notebook in the other, but this image, which so readily comes to mind, may soon be consigned to a bygone era. Notably in South Africa, where specialists like Nicholas Osner are leveraging artificial intelligence to usher in new approaches to the task of conservation. The machine-learning engineer explains: “We have developed a web application called TrapTagger, which uses an open-source algorithm to automatically process images from camera traps”, devices that can easily be attached to trees to capture pictures of wildlife. TrapTagger is just one of the projects pioneered by WildEye Conservation, a non-profit that develops AI-based tools to facilitate the conservation of species. The system can also detect the presence of humans and vehicles, but the crucial advantage of this innovation is its ability to analyse images and recognise the species that appear in them.
One of the many challenges that wildlife biologists and managers face is to know how many animals occur in a given area, how they distribute themselves in space and how this distribution changes with seasons. Estimating ungulate population size and structure and their spatial distribution is traditionally done using road or aerial surveys. However, when one is also interested in how these 3 parameters vary in time, at the seasonal or annual scales for instance, these survey methods quickly become extremely costly and logistically unpractical, especially over an area as large as the entire Etosha National Park (~23 000 km2)!
September was that time of the year again… What time?? Well, annual waterhole monitoring of course!!
As those who have been following us might know, every year in the peak of the dry season ORC deploys camera traps at each waterhole on the Ongava Game Reserve. The images are then classified with every animal recorded and added to our long-term database. The camera trap data also supplement the data collected by observers who monitor the waterholes for 96 hours but who are less reliable than cameras between midnight and sunrise.
Camera traps are a powerful tool for studying wildlife and are widely used by ecologists around the world as an effective way to gain insight into the diversity of wildlife in different locations and the size of populations. By developing an understanding of the abundance and distribution of various species, wildlife conservationists contribute to their conservation and provide crucial information to guide land-use management decisions.