Google Funds Spy Technology to Turn Poachers into Prey

Hidden sensors and aerial surveillance may finally make a dent in what's being called the worst year for animal crime in decades.
Animals like these tigers are under constant attack from illegal poachers. (Photo: Schafer & Hill/Getty Images)
Dec 16, 2012· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

This needs to be said: We’re losing the war on poaching. It’s far from over, but right now we are definitely in the losing position. Carter Roberts, president of the The World Wildlife Fund, says on his organization’s site, “We face an unprecedented poaching crisis. The killings are way up. We need solutions that are as sophisticated as the threats we face.” That means it’s time to get serious− like crime-fighting, super-hero, spyware-technology-using serious. And that means we’re calling up the drones− not to attack poachers, but to catch them before they kill.

This week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced its receipt of a $5 million grant, courtesy of Google’s Global Impact Awards to test advanced technology in the fight against animal crime. If it works, the new system will include sensors placed in wildlife environments and on the animals themselves, which would be monitored by a network of surveillance drones overhead. When poachers are detected, the drones will signal mobile ranger patrols on the ground to move in, hopefully stopping the poachers’ attack.

MORE: In India, Poachers are Now Killing Elephants with Electrified Power Lines

Over the summer, TakePart reported that drones were being tested by the Nepalese chapter of the WWF to combat poaching in the country’s Chitwan National Park. The lightweight machinery can be launched by hand, flying up to an elevation of about 650 feet sustaining travel for about 18 miles. The drones' cameras allow ground crews to spot would-be poachers, especially in areas that are difficult to access on foot, and it can all be controlled by an iPad.

But with Google’s new funding, these efforts will now be tested in four more sites in Africa and Asia.

In addition, part of the funding will go to investigating a method of using animal DNA to track animal parts sold globally, uncovering pathways of sale within the black market operation. This information could definitively connect the dots between those doing the killing, and the private collectors doing the buying.

According to Popular Science, WWF’s initiative is a build-out of previous systems used to stop the illegal hunting of endangered species. One of those utilized, was the installation of a GPS-tracking chip into the horns of endangered rhinos. The chip was linked to a specially-programmed cellphone, sending alerts depending on what the animal was doing and where it was moving.

But the conservation agency says something much larger in scope is needed now, preferably one that tracks bigger picture activity versus only focusing on one animal at a time. According to Roberts statement, “We need solutions that are as sophisticated as the threats we face. This pushes the envelope in the fight against wildlife crime.”

The organization reports that in the past 50 years, the level of wildlife crime has never been as high as it’s been in the past 12 months. It estimates that up to $10 billion is profited from the illegal (and barbaric) killing of lions, tigers and rhinos. If aerial surveillance hinders the process in even just a small way, it could have a huge impact on the lives of the animals we’re killing.

What do you think should happen to poachers and the people who willingly buy their products? Let us know in the Comments.