Holiday snaps help scientists monitor wildlife © Megan Claase, Rafiq et al./ Current Biology, 2019

Holiday snaps help scientists monitor wildlife

Been on a safari? Your photos of the wildlife could help scientists monitor animal populations.

Wondering what to do with your holiday photos? Soon you might be able to share them with scientists, as new research shows that tourists on safari can provide wildlife data that’s as useful as scientific surveys.

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Researchers used tourist photos to calculate the population densities of five top predators in northern Botswana (lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, and wild dogs). In total, they analysed 25,000 photos taken by 26 tour groups.

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The project was dreamt up by Kasim Rafiq, then a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University studying African leopards. When out in the field one day, safari guides told him that they’d earlier spotted a one-eared leopard that he’d been looking for for months.

“At that point, I really began to appreciate the volume of information that the guides and tourists were collecting, and how it was being lost,” said Rafiq.

Animal population surveys in Africa typically use one of three methods: camera traps (cameras connected to sensors that can detect movement or heat), track surveys (analysing animal footprints), and call-in stations (where sounds are played to attract animals to a counting station). All of these methods have disadvantages, however, such as expensive equipment, limited coverage, or a reliance on on-location experts.

For the new ‘citizen science’ method, tourists were provided with small GPS trackers, allowing the researchers to tag the photographs with location data. The results were promising, with population density estimates comparable to those from the other methods. In fact, the citizen science approach was the only one to identify cheetahs in the study area.

The photograph method was also cheaper than the others, and this could be further improved by outsourcing the image processing (which currently has to be done manually) to artificial intelligence systems.

“If we could combine advances in artificial intelligence and automated image classification with a coordinated effort to collect images, perhaps by partnering with tour operators, we would have a real opportunity for continuous, rapid assessment of wildlife populations in high-value tourism areas,” said Rafiq.


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