Wildlife conservation and satellite technology – overview
Remote sensing images at high-resolution enable ecologists and conservationists to accurately observe wildlife populations, to monitor illegal mining, to promptly identify activities surrounding deforestation, and to detect and analyse further alterations being made to the environment.
Images provided by Earth observation satellites are collated frequently, on a global level and at an increasingly higher quality. This data is also evolving to be more user-friendly, and the rate of occurrence of images has corroborated the applications that have been developed in relation to animal conservation and the conservation of endangered species in particular.
Global positioning systems combined with both satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems have enabled a range of opportunities for data compilation, assessment, assimilation, shaping, and satellite map production for wildlife monitoring and analysis.
High-resolution satellite imagery assists in environmental conservation management responsibilities and the conservation of biodiversity by providing scientists and researchers with consistently up-to-date geospatial data. Utilising network processing to map wildlife habitats, dependable factual information can be collected to monitor migratory patterns and follow the journey made by endangered species in the most remote areas on Earth.
Communications satellites can be harnessed to relay information gathered using tags and collars placed on certain wildlife species to scientists and researchers. This process enables scientists to track such species in the more isolated areas in the world, identifying and analysing movement patterns in wildlife, species numbers, and behaviours, all of which can be successfully put toward the conservation of endangered species and poaching prevention.
Due to threats such as territory loss, deforestation, and poaching, many wildlife species are deteriorating at a startling rate. In recent years, the intensity of poaching has increased, and in order to successfully implement the conservation of species and tackle wildlife criminality, the development of satellite technology is being utilised.
FIGHTING AGAINST POACHING FROM SPACE: A CASE STUDY
Over the last ten years, satellites have become an imperative participant in wildlife monitoring and the fight against poaching, with solutions that make use of satellite technologies and data being employed to cease and prevent illegal hunting activities.
THE GRIM REALITY OF POACHING
In Africa alone, thousands of endangered animals are slaughtered on an everyday basis such as the mountain gorilla, the lion, the imperial zebra, or the black rhino, all of which face extinction (to name a few). Elephants are additionally becoming endangered, notwithstanding their proven emotional intelligence and extraordinary cognitive capacities, with an average of 96 elephants being killed every single day.
To put the sheer quantity of poaching into perspective, one hundred years ago approximately 100,000 tigers roamed the wild, while today this number is approximately 3,890. It is imperative to recognise the urgent threat presented by the illegal hunting of this animal and many others alike. Furthermore, only five countries in the entire world keep poaching records, despite prevalent levels of illegal hunting all across Africa and large parts of Asia. These countries include South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, and India.
Due to the financial incentives with which poaching comes, illegal hunting is a widely popular activity. Over one thousand rhinos are killed every year for their horns, which are later traded on the black market due to the healing properties they supposedly offer, while elephants are hunted for their ivory tusks which can be sold as home décor items or carving trinkets. Certain species are imprisoned and unlawfully smuggled to make for exotic pets, and others are marketed for their meat. The cost of illegal hunting activities is not solely the shattering effects on animal welfare, but also the human lives that are lost or taken in the process. Almost 600 park rangers had their lives taken from them while in the line of duty between 2009 and 2016: a direct result of illegal hunting.
Poaching continues to pose an imminent threat to animal welfare and conservation of biodiversity, and an outstripping number of animals fall victim to unlawful hunting still, despite harsher law-making continuously put in place in attempt to protect African and Asian wildlife. As a direct result, artificial intelligence and satellite technologies have become a key player in the fight against illegal hunting across the two continents, with an array of organisations implementing the use of valuable space data within their methods of environmental conservation and wildlife preservation. University bodies, non-profit organisations, and private companies have been known to make use of high-resolution satellite imagery combined with GPS measurements in their efforts to protect endangered species.
SATELLITES, GPS AND ANKLE TRACKERS
In 2015, data to forecast where and when to send rangers on the ground to prevent poachers from hunting rhinos was collected by a team of scientists at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. Among the data used, GPS signals and satellite imagery obtained through the use of mounted trackers (i.e., from rhinos’ satellite ankle trackers) were essential in the prediction of movement of both hunters and wildlife. To generate a comprehensive solution, this prediction model in isolation is inadequate as the method is immensely improved by the incorporation of drones and ready to be dispatched rangers to interfere on the ground.
SATELLITES, AI AND LOCAL CAMERAS
Announced in 2019, the collaborative efforts of RESOLVE and Inmarsat aimed to identify, halt, and arrest poachers, saving wildlife in the process. The solution combined satellite technology, AI capabilities, alongside local cameras, and was labelled the TrailGuard AI system. This system was established with support from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and Intel. The system was constructed with the aim of identifying human presence in natural reserves at 97 percent accuracy. The images collected were immediately forwarded to park ranger facilities on the ground, for the risks to be identified and intervention to take place where necessary. Due to the absence of global connectivity in such isolated areas, the Inmarsat satellites played a crucial role in enabling the transmission of data from the cameras to the local facilities. During a trial phase of this system in Tanzania, the TrailGuard AI system enabled the arrest of 30 poachers.
MOTION SENSOR WITH BUILT-IN INTELLIGENCE
A more recent example of how we can combat illegal hunting activities from space is the motion sensor with built-in intelligence created by Jacob Kamminga from the University of Twente. The device is able to identify out-of-place movement patterns in the wild to determine the presence of a poacher or lack thereof. The system will be able to automatically recognise movements of each specimen and categorise them as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. For this to be plausible, the entire system will first need to be programmed with consideration to the countless possible movements that could be categorised as ‘normal’, depending on each species. This can be achieved by incorporating a deep learning neural network within the sensor. Only when a certain motion is considered ‘abnormal’ will an automatic signal be transferred through a satellite connection or mobile network to a facility on the ground. The data collated through this motion sensor will complement existing methods already in place that employ GPS and remote sensing surveys.
ILLEGAL HUNT OF PROTECTED BIRDS
Under both the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) and the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, Amur Falcons are a protected species. Despite the protective regulations in place, a large number of falcons are poached every year while on their migratory path to Southern Africa for either trade or consumption. Despite facing steep fines and up to three years imprisonment, the Amur Falcon is still an intensely sought-after species when it comes to poaching.
AMUR FALCONS – ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL CONSERVATION STORIES: A CASE STUDY
In 2015, the satellite project established by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the Union Ministry of Environment, the Manipur Forest Department and Forest and Climate Change collaboratively financed a wildlife conservation project to protect the Amur Falcon. The project has demonstrated triumphant results, with the species going from being mass hunted to becoming the flagship species for animal conservation in a single year.
SATELLITE TRACKING PROGRAMME
When it comes to the observation and analysis of migration patterns, satellite monitoring is an invaluable tool and of essential contribution to the development of effective methods for wildlife monitoring and conservation management strategies. In 2013, the Manipur satellite tracking programme for Amur Falcons was initiated and to this date, a total of 15 birds have been tagged.
Over two days in October and November 2019, five Amur Falcons were fitted with satellite radio transmitters by the Manipur Forest Department and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The transmitters were fitted with the aim of observing and tracking the Amur Falcon’s migratory route, and the five falcons were named after rivers and places in Manipur within the Tamenglong district: Pooching, Chiuluan, Irang, Phalong, and Barak.
On the 26th of October last year (2020), the Amur Falcon named Irang successfully returned to its nestling location in the Tamenglong district in Manipur, having travelled 29,000 kilometres from its breeding site in China. Returning the next day, a second falcon, Chiuluan, followed Irang and returned to its roosting site.
The triumphant tale of the Amur Falcons not only enables safe passing during the bird’s migratory journey and encourages more effective wildlife monitoring and protection, but also sets a high standard for conducting effective wildlife conservation practices for other migratory birds and endangered species alike, such as the Tiger project or the Hornbill project.
GLOBAL TRACKING CAPABILITIES
To determine the ‘why’ and ‘where’ behind the deterioration in species, satellites can be utilised to observe remote locations across the globe on a regular basis and simultaneously to one another by comparing Earth observation images taken over certain periods of time. Events on the ground can effectively be monitored and assessed as a result of this technological capability, enabling researchers and scientists to forecast the most secure locations in which to protect and manage wildlife populations.
While satellite technology can be used to observe the loss of an array of endangered animals and species, it has also proven beneficial in the discovery of new colonies in highly inaccessible areas across the world. For example, satellite images analysed by British Antarctic Survey scientists enabled the discovery of eleven new Emperor penguin colonies on the Antarctic coastline. The newly identified breeding sites are located in highly vulnerable locations; therefore, the discovery reveals both good and bad news.
PENGUIN COLONIES DISCOVERED FROM SPACE: A CASE STUDY
Penguin colonies (or rookeries) heavily rely on wildlife monitoring with the use of satellites, with over 50 percent of penguin colonies known to be inhabiting Antarctica having been discovered through the analysis of satellite imagery. Earth observation satellites not only identify the quantity and location of penguins in each colony, but also assist with ascertaining the timeframes during which egg laying and hatching take place, as well as assessing the potential threat of prey and changes in behavioural patterns.
NEWLY DISCOVERED COLONIES
The analysis of images taken in 2016, 2018, and 2019 by the Sentinel-2 satellite has led to scientists with the British Antarctic Survey discovering eleven new Emperor penguin colonies. Six of these colonies were identified in East Antarctica, three in West Antarctica and two across the Peninsula Region. This amounts to 18 percent more Emperor penguin colonies inhabiting different locations in Antarctica as was previously estimated, increasing the total number of potential breed sites to 61. Nonetheless, of the total penguin population the newly found colonies only account for 5 to 10 percent (or 25,000 to 55,000 birds), as the population of the newly found rookeries is relatively low. Some of the newly detected colonies are located in offshore habitats, indicating an unexpected behavioural pattern previously unreported in Emperor penguins.
Emperor penguins are dependent on an at-risk and dynamic sea-ice ecosystem. All of the newly found breeding locations are situated in these highly susceptible areas, which are likely to deteriorate over time as a result of climate change. This implies a considerably larger population reduction of the Emperor penguin than was previously approximated, which already estimated a loss of over 90 percent in 80 percent of the existing rookeries, rendering them as quasi-extinct.
Over the following three generations, the population of Emperor penguins will decrease by at least 31 percent under the best-case scenario of the Paris Agreement. Thus, the protection status of the Emperor penguin is under consideration at present, to be changed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from “Near Threatened” to “Vulnerable”.
Furthermore, a decline of over 75 percent in Chinstrap penguin colonies over the past 50 years has been observed by researchers. From the eight different species of Antarctic penguins, four are listed as “Near Threatened”, two as “Vulnerable”, and only two are listed as “Least Concern” under the IUCN database.
Emperor penguins are particularly sensitive to environmental changes, including climate change. Climate change is one of the many aspects that has an influence on this species, in which satellite applications offer valuable observation services. Through the use of satellite technology, the Earth’s temperature, sea level rise, atmospheric gases and greenhouse gas emissions can all be measured, factors which are imperative to the awareness and improvement of conditions brought about by climate change, and the prediction of Earth’s future: www.skyrora.com/post/using-satellite-technology-to-monitor-climatechange.
FROM ISOLATED AREAS TO MARINE OBSERVATIONS
Just as satellites are immensely useful in observing the most heavily isolated areas on Earth, marine wildlife observation and wildlife monitoring is also made feasible due to the nature of operations relative to satellite applications. Biologists have demonstrated an interest in tracking turtles in particular for many years, with initial studies using geolocating satellite tags attached to turtles taking place over 25 years ago.
LOGGERHEAD TURTLES TRACKED FROM SPACE: A CASE STUDY
The first studies that focused on tracking turtles aimed to collect essential information relative to the movements and behavioural patterns of these reptiles. In this day in age however, the majority of studies on this topic utilising GPS for wildlife tracking often concentrate on wildlife conservation management, as most species of sea turtle are listed as “Vulnerable”, “Endangered”, or “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Weighing on average of 80 kilograms to 200 kilograms once they have reached adulthood and an average lifespan of over 50 years, Loggerhead turtles are the largest hard-shelled turtles to be found on Earth. These turtles are already classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species and the main threats they face are plastic ingestion and bycatching. Satellites can also be harnessed to track ocean plastic pollution to identify debris and specific areas in which removal of this debris is essential, on which more can be read at the following site: www.skyrora.com/post/tracking-ocean-plastic-pollution-using-satellite-technology.
FIRST SUCCESSFUL EGG LAYING IN MURCIA IN OVER 100 YEARS
The first documented successful laying of Loggerhead sea turtles since the late 19th century took place within the region of Murcia. In summer 2019, a nest of Loggerhead turtles was identified on Cala Arturo beach and in the summer of 2020, the baby turtles had grown to a weight of 1 kilogram. This growth makes them less exposed to predatory animals such as birds and fish, therefore increasing their chance at survival in the wilderness.
Due to such growth, 21 of the confinement-born specimens were released back into their natural habitat in October 2020, of which three were continuously observed using satellite technology to monitor their behaviour and to assist with conservation of the species. After only two days of being released back into the wild, the young turtles had travelled over 300 kilometres, despite only weighing one kilogram.
Turtles are exposed to an exceptionally high level of threats, with only one in one thousand consequently reaching adulthood. Animal conservation programmes in which turtles are held in controlled environments where they can be attentively supervised for the first year of their life are essential to the survival of the species. Furthermore, the regional wildlife recovery centre is able to rescue, nurse, and re-release injured turtles that are routinely discovered off the coast of Murcia, back into the wild. According to the IUCN, many reptile species are concentrated in rainforest regions and are therefore threatened by deforestation. The observation of deforestation activities using satellite technology can also assist with wildlife conservation efforts: www.skyrora.com/post/monitoring-deforestation-using-satellite-technology.
THREATS TO OCEAN LIFE
Marine life is consistently threatened by an array of varying factors; whether due to ocean plastic pollution, poaching and illegal trade, bycatching, and overfishing. Fishing in international waters is of particular concern, as it is simultaneously ecologically destructive and economically unprofitable. Consequently, this leads to further issues such as exploited labour, human rights abuse, and illegal, unregulated, and underreported catch.
SATELLITE TECHNOLOGY AND HIGH SEAS FISHING: A CASE STUDY
Over 36 percent of nomadic fish species are presently facing extinction according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, with high seas waters providing an essential environment for migration and development for these species.
ILLEGAL, UNREGULATED, UNDERREPORTED
As a direct result of nominal enforcement and minimal regulation in place, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries is not ample regulation for sustainable fishing methods. Moreover, driven by a surging demand in the seafood market, coupled with overfishing in coastal waters, the interest in high seas fishing is on the rise. However, a valuable ally in space technologies has been acknowledged in the fight for effective environmental conservation, conservation of wildlife, and management of high seas fisheries by international
On a global scale, researchers have been directly assisted by satellite technology in the identification of illegal fishing operations over the years. Nonetheless, the One Earth study is the first of its kind to highlight which companies control the monitored fishing boats that are active in international waters. Many marine species that are caught by private companies in unregulated waters go unreported, therefore the One Earth study is an important driving force for corporate actors to take responsibility for the exploitation of biodiversity within international waters.
Combining satellite data with public databases, the One Earth study was able to identify 3,584 unique fishing boats in 2018 alone. From the total detected boats, 2,482 have been identified as belonging to major corporate players. The research from the One Earth study also found that 36 percent of all fishing activities within unregulated waters is accounted for by only the top 100 organisations operating in this sector, controlling 977 of the total observed boats.
Of the 10 largest corporate players recognised, six are headquartered in China, two are headquartered in the Republic of Korea, one in the United States and one in Chinese Taipei. Possessing a high seas fleet of 41 vessels and responsible for 160,008 fishing hours in 2018 alone, the largest corporate player recognised is the Sajo Group, based in the Republic of Korea.
BOTTOM TRAWLING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
In addition to high seas and overfishing, the deterioration of coral reefs as a result of climate change also poses a great threat to not only marine life, but also human life surrounding coastal areas dependent on these ecosystems.
CORAL REEFS FROM SPACE: A CASE STUDY
Home to over a quarter of marine species and covering approximately 110,000 square miles of the ocean floor, coral reefs are among the most productive and biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. As a result of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, coral reefs are under massive threat with the potential to be completely eradicated from all World Heritage sites by the end of the century, according to UNESCO.
With more than 500 million human beings relying on coral reefs for coastal protection, employment opportunities and provision of food, it is not just marine life that is threatened by the deterioration of coral reefs. In spite of the human population’s everyday dependence on coral reef health, many are threatened by the effects of climate change and global warming.
ACCURATE MAPPING OF CORAL REEFS
The first accurate international coral reef extent map has been established by a team of researchers from Arizona State University through the utilisation of satellite data and AI capabilities. This accurate mapping system provides an essential tool in the observation of coral health across the globe.
In order to accurately predict the location of shallow reefs, the global coral reef extent map utilises a single methodology which predicts locations with approximately 90 percent accuracy. The methodology combines a convolutional neural network with thousands of 3.7 metre resolution satellite images provided by Planet Inc. to generate the map.
Researchers combined data and satellite imagery from the Millennium Coral Reef Mapping Project to validate and effectively programme the reef extent prediction system. With a threshold of 60 percent, the system established a probability map which was later used to generate the coral reef extent map. The worldwide location of all coral reefs within 20 metres of water depth has been obtained by the GDCS team as a result.