When people began panicking about vanishing wild tigers in the early 1990s, the Indian government tried to count them by identifying individuals by their tracks. Trouble was, tiger paw prints aren’t a reliable way to distinguish the giant cats.
“It was completely absurd,” said Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society for Asia. “I was the sole critic of this nonsense that was going on.”
Karanth, who had for years been using radio telemetry collars for tracking tigers — a cutting-edge approach at the time — suggested another new technology to measure their population: the use of inexpensive camera traps to catch images of the elusive tigers.
Karanth has been a leader in applying technology, statistical modeling and complex computing to advance wildlife conservation internationally. Tonight he will share his experiences at an event hosted by Woodland Park Zoo’s young professionals network, Network for Nature. Other speakers include Karanth’s daughter, Krithi, also a technology and conservation scientist, as well as experts in the field from the Seattle zoo, Microsoft and Vulcan, a Paul Allen company engaged in philanthropy.
Seattle, it seems, is becoming a hub for the partnership between technology innovators and researchers scrambling to save disappearing wildlife.
“Woodland Park Zoo is really trying to build a coalition of technology and conservation biologists and there are a lot of exciting opportunities for us to work together and bridge that gap,” said Lisa Dabek, senior conservation scientist for the zoo and director of the Papua New Guinea Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program.
Dabek is working with engineers at Microsoft to develop GPS technology to track tree kangaroos that live in the cloud forests found on the island nation near Australia. The animals are difficult to see in the wild, and in the past little was known about their behavior. Dabek’s work is helping identify which kinds of trees the tree kangaroos live in and which are important for food.
Robert Long, senior conservation scientist in the zoo’s Field Conservation Program, is studying creatures closer to home, with a focus on wolverines.
He has also partnered with technologists at Microsoft to create an innovative solution for tracking the wide-ranging carnivore. Scientists attract the animals by placing a scent near their camera traps, but the odors need to be regularly replenished.
Wolverines live in mountainous conditions that are impossible to access frequently, particularly in the winter given the harsh weather and avalanche risk. So Microsoft engineers built a device that uses little energy and is programmed to release minute amounts of a wolverine-attracting scent every day for up to a year.
A second study overseen by Long uses camera traps on trails in wild places just outside of Seattle to monitor cougars, raccoons and coyotes.
“Technology is giving us the ability to reach out to people and talk about coexistence and try to provide incentives for them to change some of their small behaviors to allow human and animal coexistence,” Long said.
On the other side of the globe, Krithi Karanth is also concerned about helping people live alongside wildlife. Karanth is an associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York and executive director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in India.
One of her projects, called Wild Seve, uses an app to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts near two parks in India. Families whose crops or homes are damaged by elephants or livestock attacked by tigers or leopards can call their toll-free number and get help filing claims for damages. Cell phones are now ubiquitous and in less than three years, thousands of villagers have easily made claims, receiving a total of $200,000 from the Indian government.
Villagers feel less frustrated if they receive timely compensation through this new tool, Krithi Karanth said. “This is scalable, is open access, and it can be shared with people in other parts of the world to address conflict.”
Karanth also studies changes in land use, employing Google Earth and other technology.
“I see tech playing very different roles in large-scale planetary questions and very local-scale applications,” she said.
India has taken the lead internationally in protecting their country’s endangered tigers. Over the past 200 years, the range for tigers has shrunk by 93 percent, scattered over 10 countries. There are 4,000-5,000 tigers in the wild.
But all of the researchers agree that conservationists need to proceed with caution when adopting technology. The use of tech gadgets needs to be carefully evaluated before deploying them in the field. Valuable research dollars can be misspent on shiny, new tools that look impressive, but don’t deliver.
The basics of good research — developing sound hypotheses, observing species directly in the field and carefully designing studies — cannot be replaced by camera traps and GPS collars alone.
“It can look like there is science happening,” said Long, “but sometimes it’s just a bunch of photographs.”
More information on tonight’s event
The zoo’s Network for Nature is hosting Thrive Day 2 at 6 p.m. at Seattle’s Hyatt Olive 8 (1635 8th Ave.). Tickets are free for Network for Nature members and $25 for nonmembers. The event will be moderated by Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist. Panelists include the Karanths, Dabek and Long, as well as Bonnie Lei, project manager for Microsoft AI for Earth, and Ted Schmitt, Vulcan’s principal business development manager.