The surprising link between mountain gorillas and iPhones

21 February 2016 Science News
The surprising link between mountain gorillas and iPhones

The surprising link between mountain gorillas and iPhones 

Taylor Mayol | | 18/02/2016

Deep inside the misty, muddy jungle of Volcanoes National Park, elusive forest elephants, buffalo and hyenas roam around, foraging for food in the cool mountain air. A group of Rwandans in army-green fatigues crouch down, too, nestled among the bushes, observing a troop of mountain gorillas. They’re not guarding the animals, or chasing poachers. Nor are they taking a work break to revel in the natural glory all around them.

No, they’re counting.

It’s part of a massive undertaking: Seventy rangers, zoologists and local guides are trying to count every living mountain gorilla. You’d think it would have been done by now — aren’t we always hearing alarmingly low figures on various threatened animal populations? But in the past, determining hard-and-fast numbers on the mountain-gorilla population was nearly impossible.

The rangers invited him along to the scene of the crime deep in the bush, where they found a rhino with her “face chopped out” and a baby rhino, terrified, protecting her mother.

Welcome to a new, futuristic era of animal conservation, where wildlife tech — in this case, high-end iPhone-style trackers — is being used to track and help save our favorite creatures, whether on land, in the air or in the sea. Technological innovation is replacing the old image of a lone field biologist carrying binoculars and a notebook with things like rangers in Kenya using drones to fight poaching in 52 game parks. You can thank the little computers in every scientist’s pocket, which make it easier to do things like send text messages from the collars of Kenyan elephants to rangers when problem pachyderms come near fields, so the animals won’t get shot and the villagers can still eat. It’s making crime-fighting citizen science a reality, with apps like WildScan in Thailand and Vietnam that let people identify and report the sale of more than 300 illegal pets, from a Southeast Asian box turtle to a pygmy slow loris (we’re looking at you, Rihanna).

Sophisticated criminal networks make big bucks from wildlife trafficking and killing animals like elephants, rhinos and tigers — an industry worth up to $10 billion a year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. That ranks it as the fourth-biggest illicit industry behind drug, human and fake goods trafficking. But wildlife tech is fighting back. Ralph Clark, CEO of ShotSpotter, was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park when the system, which pinpoints gunfire coordinates and alerts rangers within 30 seconds, detected gunshots. Poachers were on the hunt. The rangers invited him along to the scene of the crime deep in the bush, where they found a rhino with her “face chopped out” and a baby rhino, terrified, protecting her mother. Though the poachers got to the mom, the park rangers were able to save the baby, which would have otherwise died without her mother. Sadly, this rhino was one of 1,215 killed in South Africa in 2014.

Conservationist and founder of Mongabay Rhett Butler says it’s remarkable how reluctant most wildlife biologists were to veer from more traditional uses of tech in the field, like camera traps or tagging. There’s been a disconnect between tech engineers and the jungles of Southeast Asia, or the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, but now cheaper and more prevalent gadgets — not to mention easier-to-grab data from satellites and the cloud — make it more accessible and compelling. This trend is linking together biologists, NGOs, government agencies and techies who want to stop crime, for the sake of the animals and because it’s been said to finance things like terrorism and sex trafficking. ShotSpotter’s original purpose, for example, was to detect and alert police of gunfire in 90 cities across the U.S. Even the U.S. government is trying to translate tech to the conservation context, with a $500,000 contest for innovative ideas to bust the bad guys.

Part of fighting poaching means tracking populations. When rangers know precisely how many gorillas or rhinos live in an area, they are aware when one goes missing. And with polished figures comes better data for scientists and more accurate conservation policies, which can mean bigger animal populations and more tourism, which can equal more money. It’s like an exponentially positive chain reaction. In places like Rwanda, more gorillas has meant far more money. The gorillas had more than 20,000 visitors in 2014, a threefold increase in 11 years, according to government figures.

It’s a fascinating story, not just about tech, or nature, or the economy, but also about the interconnectedness of it all. Most governments, particularly cash-strapped ones, are not going to conserve wildlife for ethical reasons. But if they see a way for the wildlife to bring in revenue — more gorillas, more money — it’s a different ball game. And every week it seems that iPhone-size technology has new applications.

But some tech toys can do more harm than good in the wrong hands. South African rangers are reluctant to reveal how or where they arrest would-be poachers when the ShotSpotter system is in play because it might reveal the location of the system, which would defeat the whole purpose. The ShotSpotter system underwent a camouflage makeover so poachers can’t find and disassemble it. There’s also the very real issue of corruption — its second shot ever captured, for example, uncovered an inside poaching job. There’s no point in having a detection system if park employees are passing along information. The fear of this has bigger consequences, too. Big-budget buyers like the U.S. Department of Defense are happy to keep tech prices artificially high to keep the gadgets in the “right” hands.

Then there’s the unsexy side of tech in the field. A lot of what’s useful in Silicon Valley simply doesn’t translate to rural areas or match on-the-ground realities — like harsh environments or local perceptions. There are “concerns about rich Westerners using drones to essentially spy on poor communities who may be poaching,” says Butler. Or using technology that doesn’t seek biologist input first. White rhinos, for one, can wear certain collars just fine, but put the same thing on a black rhino and it will rub its ears off. “The reality is … a lot of money can be wasted,” says Eric Dinerstein, director of WildTech at Resolve.

The last big hurdle is something we take for granted: cell connectivity. Conservationists hope the Facebooks and Googles of the world will have success with their Internet airplanes and other futuristic projects aimed at connecting the developing world (where most threatened species live). Because all the tech on the planet won’t make a difference if you can’t actually call for backup when you know where a poacher is.

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