WWF's new thermal infrared camera imaging and human detection software leads to dozens of arrests of wildlife criminals in Africa.
A long, dusty road runs along the border of a national park in central Kenya, with a heavily populated town on one side of an electric fence and protected lands on the other. A troop of baboons pays no mind to this dividing line, scooting back and forth to eat garden vegetables and frolic. This large park is a breeding ground for endangered white and black rhinos and home to a host of other threatened species. But with its many porous entries, the protected area attracts poachers who enter the park and kill wildlife for their parts.
To help prevent this illegal activity, WWF used a grant from Google.org to engineer a remarkable new thermal and infrared camera and software system that can identify poachers from afar and alert park rangers of their presence.
This is the first time that infrared cameras and human recognition software have been used to monitor a park’s boundary for conservation and anti-poaching efforts.
How it works
WWF designed and installed two systems to identify poachers with infrared cameras: stationary poles lining the border of a park, and a mobile unit atop a truck used by rangers.
The thermal cameras come from the company FLIR and pick up heat emitted by people and animals as they cross their viewpoint. The accompanying software determines whether that heat comes from a human. If a human is identified, the computer sends an alert to the head warden, who then deploys a quick response ranger unit to intercept the intruder. Eric Becker, WWF’s conservation engineer, developed the system from concept to reality.
“We know this will be a groundbreaking solution to stop poaching and keep rhinos and other wildlife safe,” said Colby Loucks, WWF’s director of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project. “This system will peel back the layer of night to assist the brave rangers protect wildlife and help keep them safe.”
WWF worked with the Kenya Wildlife Service to design and install the stationary solar-powered system to permanently keep watch on nearly five miles of border road. We mounted the mobile version in another park—Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve working with the Mara Conservancy—where it compliments existing anti-poaching operations, including ranger foot patrols and a sniffer dog team.
Update from the Massai Mara Field Trials
Three ghostly figures march at a steady pace from left to right across a grainy screen—a small caravan of poachers on the hunt for wildlife in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Africa. The footage shows them moving confidently under the cover of night; the protected area encompasses more than 500 square miles, making the chances of bumping into a ranger on patrol slim at best.
Soon, a truck swerves into the frame and the figures drop to the ground. The vehicle zooms past their hiding spot, then circles back and stops several paces away. Rangers jump out and apprehend the poachers. It’s as though they can see in the dark.
And, in a way, they can.
WWF installed a new thermal infrared camera that can identify poachers from afar by their body heat—even in the dead of night—and it has since transformed the way rangers track down and apprehend criminals since its introduction in March. Streaming video helps guide rangers through the darkness. And nine months after putting the technology to use, rangers have arrested more than two dozen poachers in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and apprehended two poachers via the camera system coupled with human detection software at another undisclosed national park in Kenya.
“Poachers can no longer use the cover of night to run and hide,” said Colby Loucks, WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project lead. “Their days of evading arrest are over. This groundbreaking technology allows them to search for poachers 24 hours a day, from up to a mile away, in pitch darkness. It’s upping the game in our fight to stop wildlife crime across the region.”
The camera can scan a one-mile radius and creates a live streaming video on a screen based solely on heat. Living creatures, such as people and animals, appear in a shock of white, while cooler objects, such as grasses or trees, show up in shades of gray. A ranger manning the camera can quickly communicate to his or her colleagues when an unauthorized person pans into view and guide them to the location. It’s a surefire way for them to sneak up on and apprehend poachers.
“The ability of our rangers to distinguish potential poachers from a large distance is nothing short of remarkable,” said Brian Heath, CEO and director of the Mara Conservancy, an organization that helps with conservation efforts in the northwestern sector of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. “The last three people our team arrested were flabbergasted as to how they were detected. Normally they simply sneak away when an ambush is sprung and avoid detection. Now, their heat signatures are picked up by the thermal camera. We’re catching them.”
This is one of the first uses for forward-looking infrared (FLIR) technology outside of the military and law enforcement. WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project is implementing this work with a $5 million grant from Google.org supporting innovative technology to combat wildlife crime.
WWF is working with FLIR Systems Inc., as part of a new collaboration to broaden the use of thermal imaging, and African Parks, UDS and Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd to install similar thermal imaging technology in drones. Anti-poaching drone test flights began in Zimbabwe and Malawi in October of this year.
If these pilot projects prove successful in Kenya, WWF plans to work with parks and private landowners across Africa to gain access to the thermal imaging technology. By developing and harnessing new technology, we can boost the effectiveness of rangers on the front lines in the battle against wildlife crime, and help ensure porous park borders become more secure.
To find out more about the WWF Wildlife Crime Technology Project, visit their website.
Join Eric Becker in the Sensors group to find out more about his work with WWF's Wildlife Crime Technology Project