A Garden of Conservation Technology

Latest update January 1, 2018 Started on January 1, 2018
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Many well-established and emerging wildlife reserve’s around the world have been slowly but steadily adopting technological solutions for problems of monitoring wildlife, people, and infrastructure, while generating useful data for ongoing research and compelling content for science communication and public outreach. American Prairie Reserve hopes to learn from other parks' successes and challenges while creating a working laboratory for testing new technologies -- a "Technology Garden." From a vast network of "smart" camera traps, to dirigibles and helikites, to artificial intelligence for coping with huge inputs of data, American Prairie Reserve is acting as a proving grounds for the conservation technologies of the future. Follow this expedition for the latest on the trials and travails of our efforts.

January 1, 2018
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In The Field

Good day in the field today! Colleen and I braved the -23 degree Fahrenheit windchills to deploy a CuddeLink modem on a trapline that we set out at the Mars Vista Unit of American Prairie Reserve a couple weeks ago (see the video). The wind was carving such beautiful patterns in the powdery snow that you could almost forget how cold it was. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite some downright Arctic temperatures around -35 degrees Fahrenheit Thursday morning, all of the camera traps seemed to be performing normally with plenty of remaining battery life. After some very minor troubleshooting, we had the modem up and running, and I even had some pictures of Colleen and I that one of the cameras had captured earlier in the day waiting for me in my email inbox when we got back to the truck (which, thankfully, started without any trouble). I'm pretty happy with these cameras so far and think they'll be a huge help to the work we do going forward. Next step is to get some of these out on one of our WildSky ranches, so we can help ranchers monitor area wildlife and compensate them for peacefully coexisting with abundant wildlife.

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Preparation

I'm looking forward to testing out some CuddeLink modems in the field tomorrow as part of a Cuddeback camera trapline Kyran and I deployed a couple weeks ago. If successful, the modem will send all of the pictures captured from any camera in the trapline to a new gmail account I just set up. Look for a new post about that coming soon - the weather has been hovering between 0 and -10 degrees Fahrenheit and there's a chance of snow tomorrow, so field work should be exciting. But, lest you think it's all adventure and playing in the snow out here, I just want everyone to know that this is what the majority of conservation technology "field work" looks like...

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In The Field

This weekend we had technology partners from RESOLVE on American Prairie Reserve helping us to test some new conservation tools. After the completion of the Living With Wildlife conference in Lewistown, Montana, Henrik and Ivy Rasmussen with Savannah Tracking, Sanjiv Fernando with RESOLVE, National Geographic Fellow Rae Wynn-Grant, Kyran Kunkel and Curt Freese with American Prairie Reserve, and myself, all traveled up to Phillips county to the Enrico Education and Science Center. Dennis Schneider with Vulcan joined us a couple days later. While all together we discussed how technology tested on the Reserve will benefit National Geographic Last Wild Places and other conservation projects around the world. The edge processing available on the latest models of RESOLVE’s TrailGuard cameras will be a game-changer for conservation, not just for the prevention of poaching in real time, but also to streamline camera trapping studies around the world through the assistance of built-in artificial intelligence algorithms. Vulcan’s EarthRanger platform also shows promise as a conservation tool as it allows managers and rangers to monitor everything from wild animal tags and collars to vehicles in real time. Kyran and I even braved some harsh winter weather on the prairie to deploy a trapline of Cuddeback cameras that have the ability to communicate with one another, so that a researcher or manager only has to check the nearest camera in the trapline to access the photos of all the cameras. These cameras also have the ability to link remotely to cell networks, so pictures can be sent directly to a mobile device. In the video, you can see Henrik giving us a demonstration of his LionShield technology to reduce livestock-wildlife conflict. Sanjiv did his best coyote impression, and you can see that when he gets too close to the base station with his tracking collar the alarm sounds. These systems are currently being used in parts of Africa to scare collared lions away from livestock bomas, and to alert nearby herders of the potential threat. We’ll leave it out in the prairie winter for awhile and see how well it holds up in the cold.

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Our collaborators at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute attached infrared and RGB sensors to a tethered aerial imaging platform known as a “helikite,” which is part helium filled balloon and part kite. The 2 cubic meter helikite is capable of supporting a 0.5 kg payload.


The (current) objective for sending the helikite aloft is to detect prairie dog movements and calculate prairie dog population density by hovering over known prairie dog towns. These data are hard and time consuming to collect on the ground and critically important for assessing impacts of plague and extreme weather events on population numbers. We also want to determine if the sensors can be used to continuously detect other species using prairie dog towns -- we know there are at least 100 other species that depend on the habitats that prairie dogs create.

We tested the helikite at varying heights from 30-80 meters above ground level (agl). The camera and sensor were not able to achieve the results hoped for initially due to the prairie dogs' aversion to the presence of the helikite at lower altitudes (30-50 m agl). At higher altitudes, the low-resolution GoPro camera was not able to reliably show prairie dog movement. Wind is also a limiting factor. Researchers have another higher-resolution camera on-site now and ready for testing when the weather improves and the prairie dogs emerge more consistently come spring.

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During the bison handling, the tech guys from National Geographic Society hooked us up with a cellular-enabled Reconyx camera trap, which we deployed at a bison carcass not far from the Enrico Education and Science Center. The location has borderline cell reception, and the extreme cold conditions posed a challenge for keeping the system batteries functional. Integrating a cell signal booster and solar power enabled the system to keep functioning through to spring, successfully transmitting thousands of images of coyotes, eagles, magpies and other wildlife right to our phones! We are trying out the system at other test sites now. Some of the locations have even more problematic cell reception and we are working on methods to further enhance the connection.


The thousands of images collected in the initial deployment were collected at a Google group page that could be accessible to anyone on the internet with the password. This brings us to the next challenge that camera trap studies pose: how to filter and manage that massive amount of data. It would overwhelm a system like iNaturalist. To tackle this issue, we are working with NGS and RESOLVE to test the new TrailGuard system, which also transmits its images to the cloud but uses on-board image recognition algorithms to review the pictures it takes and then only transmit images that contain species of interest.

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American Prairie Reserve and National Geographic Society deployed four Crittercams on female bison during a bison handling near the Enrico Science and Education Center. (We had to coral the bison so that we could move some to newly acquired habitat!) The cameras collected video of bison movements, interactions, and habitat use. All four worked flawlessly and collected more than forty hours of video data over the course of a week and then the collars automatically released from the bison. At that point I cross-country skied out to go find them in the snow. Thankfully the collars emit a VHF signal and are made with bright-red webbing, which really stands out against a background of snow and sage.


See the video!

Our goal was to test a prototype, GPS-enabled Crittercam. Field-testing this prototype helped us determine how battery power is affected by sub-zero temperatures, and how durable the Crittercam technology is (relative to the wear-and-tear bison can inflict on wildlife collars). The video also provides insights into animal behavior beyond what GPS data points alone can do. Points generally provide only rate of movement, home range size, and habitat use. The addition of video data provides fine-scale details on behavior (e.g., social interactions, feeding, predator encounters etc). Lastly, this was a test to determine how Crittercams should be configured to monitor ungulate migrations which is our next proposed step for 2019.

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Stunning footage, and a remarkable point of view. It's fascinating to see how technology is helping us preserve nature. Thanks for sharing footage of this magical place!
Preparation

We've got all kinds of ideas and collaborations in the works for this expedition. Rather than being a single project, this expedition is built around testing myriad technologies, equipment, software, gizmos, gadgets, and whiz-bangs! By design, we won't be doing this on our own either. Instead, we'll be partnering with lots of different collaborators, some you may have heard of, and others not. In some ways, we hope American Prairie Reserve will be the Field of Dreams for new conservation tools -- if we build it, the technologists will come. Everybody wins.


But, for now, here's one idea we've been cooking up with our friends at RESOLVE:

There has long been a need for non­invasive monitoring tools that can provide real­time information to park managers on wildlife locations and human intruders. However, there are currently no affordable, durable, and easy to deploy solutions available on the market to locate poachers before they reach their target animals. We propose a project to advance and deploy a camera system developed by RESOLVE and its partners, called TrailGuard, that is cryptic enough to hide on poacher trails, and advanced enough to detect humans and key wildlife species on­board the camera and relay those images back to park managers to respond before wildlife can be hurt. The system uses an infrared beam to detect movement and take a picture, and computer vision algorithms can then be used to identify objects in the images and only send critical alerts to save battery life. The system can operate remotely for up to one year on a small battery, and can transmit images even in areas with no GSM coverage.

Here on the American Prairie Reserve, we don't really have problems with poaching. At least not like in other parts of the world. However, we believe that the Reserve is a great place to test out these new devices! We also hope that the same technology that allows these cameras to automatically detect people, could one day be used to automatically detect members of different species, so instead of a researcher spending hours sorting through pictures collected by a remote camera, the camera itself could alert the researcher that it "found" a species of interest.

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Expedition Background

Many well-established and emerging wildlife reserve’s around the world have been slowly but steadily adopting technological solutions for problems of monitoring wildlife, people, and infrastructure, while generating useful data for ongoing research and compelling content for science communication and public outreach. American Prairie Reserve hopes to learn from other parks' successes and challenges while creating a working laboratory for testing new technologies -- a "Technology Garden." From a vast network of "smart" camera traps, to dirigibles and helikites, to artificial intelligence for coping with huge inputs of data, American Prairie Reserve is acting as a proving grounds for the conservation technologies of the future. Follow this expedition for the latest on the trials and travails of our efforts.

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