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Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade: Opportunities for Satellite

By | March 26, 2014

      On Feb. 13, 2014, in London, more than 40 world leaders signed a declaration against the annual 10 billion pounds ($16.7 billion) illegal wildlife trade in ivory, rhino and other products. This was the culmination of a week of intense activity including a Government Summit and a two-day conference, organized by United for Wildlife and attended by the world’s largest environmental bodies.

      “The decimation of some of the world’s most iconic species through poaching and illegal wildlife crime has reached epidemic levels, particularly in the case of the African elephant. There can be no let-up in effective law enforcement on the ground to protect these species, and satellite tracking technologies are proving to be hugely helpful to wildlife managers monitoring populations,” said Charlie Mayhew MBE, chief executive of Tusk Trust.

      The statistics are overwhelming: rhino poaching increased by 43 percent between 2011 and 2012; in the last two years, 10 percent of the total African elephant population has been slaughtered for ivory, putting wild elephants at risk of local extinction. The trade creates a barrier to investment and sustainable economic growth.


      The Role of Satellites

      The United for Wildlife collaboration, under the presidency of the Duke of Cambridge, identified spatial monitoring and reporting tools (SMART) technology — such as satellite nodes, ground sensors, GPS trackers and drones — as vital components in strengthening site protection in areas containing target species. However, it is only recently that the conservation community has coordinated its objectives with the satellite industry.

      “Satellites are increasingly becoming a reliable and resilient tool for monitoring and tracking wild animals,” says Professor Nick Veck of the Satellite Applications Catapult, a company that has been working with WWF on an African project using satellite technology to track elephant movements.

      “Recent advances in satellite-based technologies are changing the face of conservation and ecology, from identifying individuals and whole populations of species to monitoring changes in global forests,” says Robin Freeman, head of the indicators and assessments unit at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

      ZSL has developed a low-cost, open source, wireless GPS tracking technology called Mataki. In collaboration with Microsoft Research, ZSL has developed these devices to monitor the behavior, movements and distribution of an increasing number of species in the wild and examine potential for human-wildlife conflict, including risks of poaching.”Save the Elephant is combining satellite-uplink GPS tracking collars with Google Earth imagery to continually monitor elephant populations in the wild,” says Freeman.

      “GPS tracking can follow the movement of any animal fitted with a tracking device — including after its death. Algorithms could be developed whereby park rangers are alerted by computers to suspicious movements recorded on the tracking device,” says Ray Purdy of UCL.


      Visual Surveillance

      “Some animals are going to be harder to GPS tag than others,” says Purdy. “New very high resolution (VHR) satellites increasingly allow for visual surveillance, data collection and availability on an unmatched scale. The resolution on some VHR satellites from 2015 is expected to be between 10 and 25 cm, which would be able to see elephants, rhinos and other large endangered species.” Satellite images may be viewed in almost real time, allowing an immediate enforcement response.

      The ZSL is turning conservation and enforcement into a global effort, recruiting “civilian scientists” through its Instant Wild technology on its free app and website. This involves a pioneering satellite-connected hidden camera-trap system to monitor wildlife populations and combat poaching. Currently set up in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Mongolia, it collates images triggered by animals passing the monitor and relays them via satellite, allowing intervention and enforcement.

      Increasing public awareness of illegal wildlife trade combined with easier access to satellite technologies, such as Instant Wild and Google Earth, may lead to a “viewer society.” Interested individuals may help monitor and protect wildlife from their computers in a different country or continent. “The potential to identify and combat illegal wildlife crime will only continue to increase,” says Freeman.

      It is hoped that the power of satellite technology is recognized and implemented quickly enough to protect our tragically endangered wildlife.

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