Robots Save Elephants

Artificial Intelligence continues to be a very controversial issue fueling a multitude of ethical questions on surveillance, data security, the potential loss of human jobs, and, in the most extreme, the fear of “the rise of the robots”. Could this same technology that is alarming to some also be used to benefit wildlife conservation?

Recent reports project that if the current rising trend of illegal animal poaching continues, wild African elephants and rhinoceroses will be extinct within the next ten years. Hunted for their coveted and extremely valuable ivory and rhino horn, these two particular species are at the top of the poaching list that fuels an estimated $23 billion dollar annual black-market industry. The extinction of these two species would be an environmental tragedy that would devastate the ecology of this region. Fortunately, new technologies are being field-tested and show promise as a key part of the solution. 

The University of Southern California’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society has come up with a new approach to combat the poaching epidemic by using the latest in AI technology and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). The USC, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office, are launching drones over large areas of known elephant and rhinoceros habitats to simultaneously record and track locations of the endangered animals and their potential poachers. 

Collected data is processed by the AI program known as Protective Assistant for Wildlife Security or (PAWS). The program uses machine learning techniques and predictive analytics to show behavioral and locational patterns as a way of anticipating which areas are most likely for poachers to strike. By predicting these movements, parks with limited staff are able to utilize the information and place rangers at strategic locations to effectively stop illegal killings by poachers. The technology can also be used to document animal population size, migratory patterns, seasonal food source availability, track the effects of climate change on habitat, and predict future challenges to the species, both human and environmental. 

The positive outcomes from the use of these new “high tech” methods show that artificial intelligence and robotic technology can and will be a vital tool in a conservationist’s toolbox moving forward in the fight against poachers.

In this circumstance artificial intelligence and drone technology are saving lives through the mapping of habitat and the tracking of poachers, but what if this technology begins to be used by the poachers themselves to track the rangers and the animals? This argument illustrates ethical issues of geography, technology, and science that will forever be debated. In the end it is the people that must decide if the ends justify the means, and if so, what are fair and just regulations that protect our inalienable human rights. History shows us that with proper regulation and leadership innovation such as AI and robotic technology have the potential to help save the world if we maintain focus using the power that comes with advances in geospatial technology ethically. 

Interested in learning more about the impacts of geospatial technology on poaching? Check out this article on American Geographical Society’s Connect 2 Conserve.

Jake Rogers is studying Environmental Science and Physical Geography at New York City’s Hunter College. His research includes indoor agriculture, mycoremediation, watershed decontamination, and environmental conservation and restoration. He is also currently a research, writing, and mapping assistant for the American Geographical Society.