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COMMENTARY

Creating a better future by using technology to save endangered species

HUMANITY has achieved a great deal in a couple of centuries. Through the genius of individuals like Leonardo Da Vinci and Mozart, we have created art that has not only become cultural masterpieces, but also captured the imagination of generations. We have travelled the ends of the earth through land, sea and skies, discovering new life forms and kickstarting globalisation. We have sent people to the moon, continued to eradicate diseases, and built monuments like the pyramids that awe us and defy science we know it today.

Despite all our advancements, it took only a few decades to push the wildlife that we share the planet with to the brink. The World Wildlife Fund (otherwise known as World Wide Fund For Nature) notes that we're seeing an astonishing 60 per cent decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians in just over 40 years, with human activities directly linked to environmental issues that include habitat loss, overfishing and overhunting.

However, humanity is in a unique position of being best placed to tackle this challenge, using modern-day technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics and predictive algorithms to help augment conservation efforts worldwide. We also owe it to the world to build a sustainable future for all the life forms that we share our planet with.

One area where technology intervention is urgently needed is to stop illegal poaching of wildlife. Estimates show that poachers kill an elephant every 15 minutes, at a rate of some 35,000 elephants per year. As such, the faster we can check and curb this menace of illegal poaching, the more animals can be saved.

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Some of these efforts are already taking shape. The non-profit RESOLVE, supported by the National Geographic Society and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, is deploying its new TrailGuard AI camera powered by Intel Movidius Vision Processing Units (VPUs). These TrailGuard AI cameras being deployed throughout 100 reserves in Africa in 2019 not only detect poachers entering the wildlife reserves, but also alert park rangers in near-real time. These smart cameras tap neural network algorithms for object detection and image classification to help detect humans in any of the motion-activated images captured by the camera. When poachers are detected, park personnel is alerted, hopefully allowing rangers to get to the scene before the poachers can do any harm.

Detection and deterrence aren't the only issues at play. As advanced as modern science is, we still have a great deal to learn about the endangered species that we're trying to save. What's more, collecting reliable data can be a challenging and expensive affair, especially in areas that are difficult for humans to traverse.

THE ANSWER: DRONES

WildTrack, another non-profit organisation dedicated to non-invasively tracking animals, deployed ConservationFIT, which uses images of animal footprints to monitor more than a dozen endangered species. The project used drones to capture images in places with terrain that can be tough for researchers - for example, those looking for cheetah trails in the Namibian desert.

Here is an interesting one: Did you know that whale snot can help researchers learn a great deal about the world's largest mammals? The problem is that an expedition to collect whale snot doesn't come cheap.

Drones from the Ocean Alliance and Intel, known as Parley SnotBots, fly above surfacing whales in the world's oceans and seas. As the whales exhale, the drone easily collects DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, as well as viruses, bacteria and toxins. The snot is then taken back to researchers for analysis using AI to produce real-time data for research and conservation initiatives.

The survival of our planet's wildlife is crucial to humanity's continued existence. Whether using predictive algorithms and the cloud to help predict where poachers will show up, or employing big data, satellite imagery and tree mapping to tackle the issue of deforestation, technology is helping conservationists work better and faster than ever before, giving us a fighting chance to make the world a better place for everyone.

  • The writer is managing director, Intel Asia-Pacific and Japan Territory.