How Open-Source Software Could Help Save Endangered Animals From Poachers

A wildlife ranger logs GPS data to be uploaded into SMART.
A wildlife ranger logs GPS data to be uploaded into SMART.

Photo © SMART/North Carolina Zoo.

No one is going to tell you we’ve been winning the battle against the illegal wildlife trade. In most cases, we’re outmanned, outgunned, and probably most of all, out-spent. That’s why an alliance of six conservation organizations have come together to build an anti-poaching tool designed to bridge the technological gap between poachers and wildlife rangers.

“Poaching is becoming a lot more organized and technologically advanced,” Barney Long, Asian species expert for the World Wildlife Fund, told me. “We have examples of rhino poachers in Africa using night vision and helicopters, while our rangers on the ground are lucky if they have GPS and a weapon.”

He’s only half-joking. Wildlife managers are often local organizations with shoestring budgets, but the trade they battle is global. To combat this disparity, conservation corps in the field can get a much-needed tech upgrade with the open-source Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, nicknamed SMART. Released in February, SMART is a way for wildlife managers to better track illegal activity in their parks. As rangers patrol the field, GPS units keep constant tabs on their movements; coordinates can also be tethered to special events, like discovering a snare or arresting a poacher. Back at HQ, this information is loaded into SMART for overlay on maps. When combined with information from other sources, like tips from locals or historical experience, managers using SMART are able to visualize and plan for threats more efficiently. Long calls this “adaptive management.”

Such technology may sound obvious or rudimentary, as many of us work in offices with three supervisors and a never-ending flow of TPS reports. But wildlife conservation is a business run out of the bush.

“These guys are on the frontlines getting into gun battles with poachers,” says Emma Stokes, a conservation scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society who has had more than her share of tents trampled by elephants in the night. “The idea is also to try to motivate and encourage rangers in day to day work, collecting info on where they are and what they’re doing to calculate incentives and bonus systems to reward those rangers doing a very good job under extremely difficult circumstances”—like spending up to a month at a time on patrol.

So far, SMART is up and running in 22 test sites across the globe, including Latin America, Central and East Africa, Southeast Asia, Russia, and China. Just last week Stokes helped train officials from Gabon, Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Stokes Skyped with me from Gabon. Long called from Cambodia.) The goal is to keep rolling out improvements to the software based on need. Version 1.1 is slated to release in May, with powerful new functionality, including the ability to upload data from the field via smart phone. Since it’s open-source, users are also encouraged to improve SMART and upload plugins back to the community. It will probably be a few months yet before we learn how it’s working, but word is spreading fast thanks to agents in the field like Long and Stokes.

SMART is the product of an unprecedented coalition of organizations. The Avenger-like super group currently includes CITES-MIKE, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the North Carolina Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund, and the Zoological Society of London. (Who gets stuck being Ant-Man?)

Certainly, endangered species need all the help they can get and it’s encouraging to see animal activists adopting drone technology and fighting rhinoceros poaching with unmanned surveillance aircraft. But the most powerful weapon at a conservationist’s disposal may just be un-flashy, data-collection software.