As Netflix's hit "Tiger King" brings to light the questionable state of the 5,000 captive tigers in the US, IBM and the conservation group Panthera use tech to combat the $20 billion annual illegal wildlife trade.
Poachers beware: You're being watched.
As people isolate at home trying to escape COVID-19, a different kind of watching emerges, binge-watching, a trendy pass-the-time choice. One hugely popular show is the Netflix docu-series "Tiger King," which spans several years as it follows Oklahoma-based wildcat zoo owner Joe "Exotic," his staff, and his menagerie of big cats.
A fact oft-repeated throughout "Tiger King" is that while the US alone has 5,000 big cats in captivity, there are only 3,900 tigers left in the wild (down from 100,000 a century ago). Despite that shocking dwindling number, tigers are being poached, to the tune of a $20-billion-per-year illegal wildlife trade, according to Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. Tiger meat, skin, claws, and bones fetch high prices on the black market.
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"Unfortunately, the global response to addressing the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has been sluggish, allowing the problem to balloon," John Goodrich, chief scientist and tiger program senior director for Panthera, told TechRepublic. IWT is now ranked "among the world's most lucrative illegal businesses along with drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Transnational poaching networks have become better established and harder to disrupt than ever before."
Catching poachers in the wild
To combat the rampant poaching, Panthera paired with software engineers from IBM to develop PoacherCam. Since 2007, Panthera produced wildlife monitoring devices called PantheraCams, which evolved into PoacherCams.
"The original technology behind the PoacherCam came from the traditional camera trap, which has been used for decades to capture images of wildlife in their natural habitats," Goodrich said. "The technology was then developed to be pointed at a new target—poachers."
Poachers are armed with automatic weapons, snares, and poison, and don't hesitate to catch a tiger, as they decimate wildlife populations.
Last year, the devices received an upgrade, the PoacherCam V7, which is 10% smaller than the previous version, making it easier to hide in the field. It has an updated processor for quicker image-analysis and features Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities that allow images to be checked and set up remotely.
Now conservationists are armed with the first camera in the world that can distinguish between people and animals. PoacherCam uses an invisible infrared flash. When it detects a human, it transmits in real-time, via wireless networks, the image and location to a network of rangers and law-enforcement officials, who can arrest the poachers or use images to identify and prosecute them later. It used to take weeks for a patrol team to catch poachers in the tiger's deep-forest habitat.
PoacherCams have been deployed across tiger ranges throughout Asia and have led to successful anti-poaching operations, according to Panthera, which has a program aimed at increasing wild tiger populations by 50% over 10 years.
At $250, PoacherCams are both reasonably priced and small, convenient to hide in the forest. Goodrich pointed out "a similar camera produced by the World Wildlife Fund costs $7,000."
Big cats and their status
PoacherCams are used to monitor poacher activity throughout the wild, but most notably where it's a challenge to traverse (and find) the endangered animals' territories. Tigers, for example, naturally reside in deep, dark areas in forests.
Panthera's PoacherCam program has five partners in core tiger and lion-range sites including India, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, and Benin. Specific initiatives at Panthera include "Tigers Forever," "Jaguar Corridor Initiative," "Journey of the Jaguar," and programs for the snow leopard, puma, cheetahs and small cats. Tigers Forever has six partners in core tiger-range sites including Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand.
The worldwide status of big cats, according to Panthera:
- Tiger: endangered
- Lion: vulnerable
- Jaguar: near threatened
- Leopard: vulnerable
- Snow Leopard: vulnerable
- Puma: least concern
- Cheetah: vulnerable
Small wildcats also threatened
According to Panthera, there are 40 recognized species of wild cats in the world, and seven of those are the attention-grabbing "big" cats (list above), while 33 are of smaller stature. All wild cats have a critical place in the world's ecosystems, and all are increasingly threatened. And because they are smaller, a lot less is known about them. The smaller and elusive wild cats range from a 5 lb. rusty-spotted cat, to the 50 lb. Eurasian lynx and live in five of the world's seven continents (you won't find any in Australia and Antarctica). The most, 14 species, live in Asia.
The future of catching poachers
Panthera recognizes the beginning-to-be iconic "Tiger King" and the conservation organization even features a CNN article on its website, "Tiger King is addictive, absurd and scary. "
"The PoacherCam is saving the lives of tigers, lions, and other threatened species," Goodrich said. "Panthera rolled out PoacherCams in tiger conservation ranges in India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Thailand, and lion conservation range in Benin."
There's still room for improvement, Goodrich said. "One limitation of the hardware is the availability of cell phone networks, which are needed to transmit the images." He added, "the PoacherCam continues to be an essential part of Panthera's work and we are always working to improve and adjust things for the elements, including humidity and fog cover, so the camera is ever-evolving to meet our needs."
PoacherCam represents a breakthrough technology to help the survival of endangered wild cats, "We are at a tipping point where reducing poaching will make the difference between survival or extinction for wild tigers that are now teetering on the brink," Goodrich said.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the number of partners and locations of two Panthera programs.
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