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AI is the newest guardian of wildlife; here’s how it's saving koalas and...

AI is the newest guardian of wildlife; here’s how it's saving koalas and...

AI is the newest guardian of wildlife; here’s how it's saving koalas and...
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By CNBCTV18.com Feb 22, 2022 7:19:23 PM IST (Updated)

Unlike conventional methods of wildlife conservation, AI uses algorithms to sort massive amounts of data to efficiently track and understand animal behaviour; and it's currently being used to track whales in the Pacific and control water loss in Brazil, among other things.

At a time when conventional methods of wildlife conservation are failing, conservationists are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) for more innovative tech solutions to protect species from the edge of extinction.

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According to a report by Wildlabs.net, AI has turned out to be one of the top three emerging technologies in advancing conservation over the next 10 years along with environmental DNA (eDNA) and genomics, and networked sensors.

With camera traps and satellite images, AI can easily detect an animal call or identify a rare species, doing the job of hundreds of people at a time and reducing the labour required to collect data. Not only does the application of technology in wildlife and biodiversity preservation help researchers and rangers, it also helps protect threatened species like humpback whales and koalas.

Why AI is required in wildlife conservation

Conservationists use a number of methods such as camera traps, satellite remote sensing, tracking tags, acoustic sensors monitoring and drones to capture the activities in Nature. AI uses algorithms to sort the huge amount of data to better understand behaviour of animals such as their foraging routes, reproduction patterns and hunting habits. It can also be used for surveillance, controlling poaching, security, animal counting and research.

In the conventional mode, forest rangers, who are often not well equipped to deal with the task, take on the exhaustive work of tracking animals. Also, the lack of adequate number of rangers results in one person monitoring vast areas of land, leaving room for error.

How AI is helping

At present, there are five projects working with AI that are contributing to our understanding of biodiversity and species.

Zambia’s Kafue National Park: Zambia’s department of national parks and wildlife, the Game Rangers International (GRI) and other partners have started the Connected Conservation Initiative that uses AI to enhance conventional anti-poaching efforts. 

More than 6,600 African savanna elephants live in Zambia’s Kafue National Park and are prey to poachers, who enter and exit the park disguised as fishermen. Illegal fishing in Lake Itezhi-Tezhi at the edge of the park is also a problem. AI has helped reduce manual surveillance by automatically detecting boats entering the park, The Guardian reported.

Water tracking in Brazil: In Brazil, the MapBiomas water project used AI to process over 150,000 images from NASA’s Landsat 5, 7 and 8 satellites across the 8.5m sq km of Brazilian territory between 1985 and 2020 to reveal how the country lost 15 percent of its surface water in the last 30 years.

The results revealed that 74 percent of surface water in the Brazilian portion of Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, had been lost, dealing a devastating blow to the 4,000 species of plants and animals living in that area, including jaguars, tapirs and anacondas.

“Without AI and ML technology, we would never have known how serious the situation was, let alone had the data to convince people,” The Guardian quoted Cássio Bernardino, lead of the WWF-Brasil’s MapBiomas water project, as saying.

Tracking whales in the Pacific: Oceanographers have used AI at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) fisheries in the Pacific islands to collect acoustic recordings of whale singing in order to locate and monitor the humpbacks.

In 14 years, NOAA has accumulated around 190,000 hours of acoustic recordings, which would have been very difficult and time-consuming for an individual, Ann Allen, NOAA research oceanographer, said.

Protecting koalas in Australia: With the help of federal and Landcare Australia funding, Grant Hamilton, associate professor of ecology at Queensland University of Technology, set up a conservation AI hub to count the number of koalas and other endangered animals in Australia. 

As a result of habitat destruction, attacks of domestic dogs, road accidents and bushfires, the koala population is rapidly declining in Australia. Hamilton used drones and infrared imaging to track surviving koalas, particularly on Kangaroo Island, after the devastating bushfires in 2019 and 2020.

Counting species in the Congo basin: The Congo basin is the world’s second-largest rainforest and home to a huge number of species, which are on the verge of extinction. In 2020, data science company Appsilon, Gabon’s National Parks Agency and the University of Stirling in Scotland partnered to develop the Mbaza AI image classification algorithm to monitor biodiversity in the Lopé and Waka national parks.

The algorithm analysed over 50,000 images from 200 camera traps taken across the forest area of 7,000 sq km. It has helped conservationists monitor animals and spot anomalies.

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