Wildlife poachers who stalk endangered animals in East and South Africa have long operated under the cover of night. But lately not even a moonless sky is safe cover for stalking impalas, elephants, and rhinos. Now, the power of increasingly inexpensive infrared cameras, artificial intelligence, and drones are being used to stop illegal poaching. Rangers are rounding up veteran poachers in the middle of the night, says Colby Loucks, World Wildlife Fund’s senior director of wildlife crime technology, who ask, dumbfounded, “How are you finding me?’”
This spring, the World Wildlife Fund began deploying thermal sensing infrared technology from the imaging company FLIR to combat poaching in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Conservancy park—and at another secret location that’s home to rhinos, one of the most imperiled creatures on Earth. The technology, which detects a narrow sliver of the electro-magnetic spectrum of reflected or emitted heat, could become a critical tool in the fight to protect endangered species. Anything living appears as a white or grey blob on a screen or in a viewfinder, no light needed.
“We call it a superpower,” says Travis Merrill, senior vice president of FLIR. The thermal imaging technology has existed for decades, but it was bulky and expensive—until it fell prey to Moore’s law. Now, infrared sensors come as standard equipment on some smartphones. And in the field, FLIR can supply WWF with stationary cameras strategically deployed in poaching hotspots, powerful mobile units that are mounted to off-road vehicles, and even handheld rangefinders. The technology can detect a person through fog, haze, and smoke, and some cameras have a range of a full mile.
At Kenya’s Maasai Mara Conservancy, the sensors are part of a high-stakes game of hide and seek. Rangers set up on a hill in their SUVs, blocking out their windows so no light from their monitors escapes. Watching the readouts from the thermal imagers, the SUV outposts radio the location of poachers to foot patrol units who can stealthily spring on their prey. Stationary thermal cameras distribute operations even more, with feeds that route back to headquarters where a trained AI algorithm alerts rangers to signs of human movement.
Without their lookouts, those rangers would have to secure hundreds of square miles of wildlife territory unaided. The thermal imaging cameras become a “force multiplier,” says Loucks: Stationary thermal cameras mounted in a rhino habitat helped catch two poachers jumping a fence within the first weeks of use. And the technology may be as powerful as a deterrent as it is at finding criminals: That area hasn’t seen a poacher in months.
The program is being tested out in Kenya, but initial results are positive, says Loucks. Since the program started in March, rangers have nabbed 26 poachers, and now the WWF and FLIR are trying out drones equipped with thermal imaging technology in Malawi and Zimbabwe. The poachers won’t know what hit ’em.