Artificial intelligence and big data can help preserve wildlife

Published on
February 9, 2022

A team of experts in artificial intelligence and animal ecology have put forth a new, cross-disciplinary approach intended to enhance research on wildlife species and make more effective use of the vast amounts of data now being collected thanks to new technology. Their study appeared on 9 February in Nature Communications.

The field of animal ecology has entered the era of big data and the Internet of Things. Unprecedented amounts of data are now being collected on wildlife populations, thanks to sophisticated technology such as satellites, drones and terrestrial devices like automatic cameras and sensors placed on animals or in their surroundings. These data have become so easy to acquire and share that they have shortened distances and time requirements for researchers while minimizing the disrupting presence of humans in natural habitats.

Today, a variety of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs are available to analyse large datasets, but they are often general in nature and ill-suited to observing the exact behaviour and appearance of wild animals. A team of scientists has outlined a pioneering approach to resolve that problem and develop more accurate models by combining advances in computer vision with the expertise of ecologists. Their findings, which appear today in Nature Communications, open up new perspectives on the use of AI to help preserve wildlife species.

Building up cross-disciplinary know-how

Wildlife research has gone from local to global. Ecologists can use AI to extract key features from images, videos and other visual forms of data in order to quickly classify wildlife species, count individual animals and track their movement, using large datasets. “The application of AI in data analyses for wildlife ecology opens up opportunities to better understand wildlife and also contribute to conservation”, says Frank van Langevelde, professor of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation group at Wageningen University and Research and co-author of the paper. “We illustrate how modern technology offers revolutionary new ways to produce more accurate estimates of wildlife populations, better understand animal behaviour, combat poaching and halt the decline in biodiversity.”

The idea of forging stronger ties between AI and ecology came up as Van Langevelde and his team were testing a system to detect poachers in African savannas using the widely abundant large herbivores as sentinels. Animals such as zebra and wildebeest change behaviour when people, such as poachers, are in the vicinity. “We monitored animal behaviour using GPS and found that the presence of human intruders could be detected with an accuracy of 86%. Such initiatives are very useful in preventing certain wildlife species from going extinct, and the new paper advocates to further combine AI and wildlife ecology”, says Van Langevelde. Lead author Prof. Devis Tuia (EPFL) continues: “We wanted to get more researchers interested in this topic and pool their efforts so as to move forward in this emerging field. AI can serve as a key catalyst in wildlife research and environmental protection more broadly.”