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African Parks Use GIS to Battle Poachers and Protect Animals

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African Parks Uses Tracking to Combat Poaching and Protect Animals

African Parks Use GIS to Battle Poachers and Protect Animals

In 2017, officials at Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo observed something alarming about the behavior of the 1,200 elephants they protect.

African Parks Use GIS to Battle Poachers and Protect Animals

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Key Takeaways

  • African Parks uses tracking collars to gain awareness of animals’ locations and to monitor for the signs of agitation that signal the presence of poachers.
  • Tracking devices and other tools have helped to improve animal survival rates and as peace has returned, the animals have displayed more relaxed behavior.
  • African Parks works towards a digital twin to improve its understanding of the complexity of its parks and wildlife. 

Many of the park’s elephants wear tracking collars and Garamba staff use a geographic information system (GIS) to track the animals’ movements on a digital map. The GIS displays their positions and movements in real time as icons on the map and the color of the icon reveals how quickly an elephant is moving. 

On a computer screen, the staff could see when all the animals would converge hastily in one area of the park. This was not normal behavior for elephants, which typically travel in smaller herds led by a matriarch. Reports from park rangers on the ground confirmed that something was frightening the animals. Their instinctive response was to seek safety in numbers.

The data painted a clear picture of what was happening. Poachers, who hunt elephants and sell the tusks on the black market for ivory, had returned.

Bull elephant with tracking collar in Garamba National Park, Africa African Parks mainly puts collars on matriarchal females to keep track of family groups. This bull elephant, with an impressive set of tusks, also wears a tracking collar.

“This condensation of elephants happened at a time when we had a reasonably high number of collars and a high level of poaching,” Naftali Honig, Garamba’s director of research and development and anti-poaching information coordinator for African Parks, said recently. “I flew over the herd so I could see it for myself.”

The GIS allowed the staff to visualize the state of the assets the park protected, while firsthand observation validated the conclusion and helped rangers take action.

Confronting the Persistence of Poachers

Keeping wildlife in African protected areas safe from poachers is always a challenge. Familiar with the area and comfortable living off the land, poachers come and go with relative ease. The problem isn’t limited to Garamba. Increased poaching activity in Zakouma National Park in Chad devastated the elephant population, which dropped from 4,500 to 400 between 2002 and 2010. In the 1970s, Garamba’s herd included 22,000 elephants. By 2017, it had dropped to 1,200.

“In Zakouma, the herd was so condensed, they’d walk next to one another like sardines,” said Geoff Clinning, technology development director for African Parks, the conservation nonprofit that manages 15 protected areas in partnership with governments across the African continent, including Garamba and Zakouma National Park. “That’s the only way they thought they were safe. They were running unbelievably scared.”

Park rangers wearing camouflage gear review digital real-time maps inside the operation center. A real-time map plays a central role in park operation centers. This photo was taken by Mia Collis and provided by African Parks.

In the past three years, Garamba has reduced elephant poaching by 97 percent. The effort has included coordination with law enforcement and local communities—and a very shrewd approach to location intelligence. 

Disrupting Supply Chains

GIS is often used by businesses to manage supply chains; in an interconnected economically transnational world, the technology helps people visualize the assembly of parts and the movement of products. Garamba’s staff members accomplished an inversion. They disrupted poaching’s illicit supply chain by using location intelligence to better understand the movement of poachers.

The strength of GIS is the way it presents multiple data sources as layers on the common canvas of a map. For Garamba, it allowed staff to see things that were otherwise hidden. Aerial photography analysis pointed to the expansion of trail systems. Wildfire patterns suggested new places poachers might approach or avoid. Poachers usually follow waterways, and GIS revealed probable river-crossing points.

The data helped direct the well trained rangers toward places they were likely to intercept poachers. Arrests have increased, elephant poaching has been dramatically reduced, the population has been rebounding, and stability has returned for people and wildlife thanks to a combination of smart law enforcement and community development.

“Through our partnership with the Government of Chad we’ve been able to secure Zakouma and the elephants are breeding again,” Clinning said. “They still hang out quite often as a group, but they’ll also go off and have time by themselves before returning to the main herd.”

“I call it a relaxation of behavior,” Honig said. “If a gunshot goes off in a remote corner of the park, the herd will immediately head toward the center, but we haven’t seen that agglomeration. We observe elephants by sitting next to them, but we’ve also had enough digital observation to see what different patterns look like.” 

Revealing Animal Secrets

For African Parks, using the location intelligence in GIS isn’t merely a defense, a way to guard against illegal activities. Location intelligence also helps officials better understand the assets it protects. The parks are increasingly sensor-heavy Internet of Things (IoT) environments. Rangers carry instruments that collect data, documenting animals’ presence in remote areas, with everything fed back to the GIS.

“The kind of IoT devices that are already used in industry and city environments are really finding their way into conservation,” Clinning said.

The work is yielding fascinating data that helps scientists understand the “supply chains” the parks protect—natural ecosystems—in granular detail.

“Historically, the understanding was that a lion is a lion, a leopard is a leopard, and a cheetah is a cheetah,” Clinning said. “As we broaden that knowledge, we begin to understand that a lion can behave completely differently when it’s living in a forest in Ethiopia. We’re learning that in some of the remote places we now work in, there’s very little understanding of how a species operates.”

African Parks Use GIS to Battle Poachers and Protect Animals

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Streamlining a Powerful Tool to Impact Operations

African Parks was challenged by information overload when it presented the array of GIS visualization and analysis options to those working in the control room at Garamba National Park.

Evan Trotzuk, cyberinfrastructure officer for African Parks, helped simplify the user interface and focus it on specific park security workflows using the ArcGIS Pro Software Development Kit. Coding the customized solution presented a slight learning curve to Trotzuk, because he hadn’t coded in C# before. He found resources on GitHub and soon figured out the basic syntax.

Trotzuks’ efforts reduced training time for park rangers and helped maintain their attention on park security. The unique configuration allows control room operators to gather and analyze sensor data in real-time; visualize data; and track special elements like patrol position, elephant speed, and location of ground patrols.

Learn more about how ArcGIS Pro supports data visualization, advanced analysis and authoritative data maintenance in 2D and 3D.

Seeing the World

At Garamba, the many sources of sensor data come together in the centralized environment of the park’s control room. Data streams are processed and analyzed in near-real time, giving park directors a global sense of activity in the park. Potential threats, such as fires and gunshots, appear on the GIS screen, helping staff allocate ranger resources. Since elephants are so keenly attuned to poachers and other threats, the GIS effectively leverages the intelligence of these animals themselves to aid in their protection.

This enhanced knowledge also helps the park managers better understand how human populations around the parks interact with the land. Location intelligence can help staff distinguish between poachers and refugees moving across the border that the park shares with Sudan. This lets the staff work with local populations who still depend on regulated harvesting.

This increased data gathering will inevitably reveal patterns that a cursory analysis won’t detect. African Parks is investigating ways to apply artificial intelligence techniques to park management. Along with using GIS defensively to combat poaching and as a way to improve present knowledge, park managers hope to add a new layer. Machine learning will help them plan for the future.

“We’re getting to the point where predictive models can be very helpful for protective area management,” Honig said. “We want to replicate the way we, as humans, do protective modeling—but just make the machine do it better.”

Learn more about how location technology is contributing to conservation efforts and learn how you can help African Parks to secure parks for the benefit of people and wildlife across Africa.

 

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