Wildlife conservation

Heatmaps showing the very different home ranges of 4 snow leopards, inferred from camera trap photos.

New methods for data-driven wildlife conservation

Prof. David Borchers, Dr Monique MacKenzie & Dr Len Thomas | School of Mathematics and Statistics

The Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling (CREEM) of the University of St Andrews is a world leader in developing statistical methods for ecological and environmental modelling. We are working with conservation organisations and government agencies in Africa and Asia to apply these methods, using new survey technologies, to meet the conservation and management aims of these organisations. Some examples are given below.

Using tagged vultures to detect rhino poaching in Africa

Two solar-powered vulture tags, shown next to a cup for scale.

Rhino poaching is a huge problem for nature reserves in Africa. Effective control measures rely on being able to monitor poaching activities, but it is very difficult to monitor large game reserves effectively. So we are enlisting vultures to help us. Being wide-ranging scavengers, vultures are very good at surveying large areas to detect recent kills. We are working with game parks in Namibia to use vultures as mobile poaching monitoring platforms. GPS tags with accellerometers are being attached to vultures, and statistical methods will be used to extract signature behaviours from the data generated by the tags, in order to identify when vultures are feeding on, or circling over carrion. In addition to extending monitoring capacity, this allows rangers’ interventions to be more directed and timeous. In the longer term, it will generate a database on poaching behaviour from which statistical analysis can extract patterns that may allow probabilistic prediction of future poaching events, and a more pre-emptive approach to managing poaching.

Using camera traps to manage snow leopard populations in Asia

Snow leopards are shy and secretive and notoriously difficult to survey. But the growth in use of camera traps is generating a new kind of data on this rare species, and larger volumes of data than it has been possible to gather before. Because every snow leopard has unique markings, we know which cameras detected each snow leopard and this can tell us something about their movement patterns and what determines this. Working with the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, we are using camera trap data with methods that were developed in CREEM, to extract new kinds of information from the data – about snow leopard movement, distribution, abundance and habitat preference, all of which are crucial for developing effective conservation strategies for this elusive species.

Building wildlife survey capacity

Survey method training exercise for conservationists in Tanzania.

CREEM is working with conservation organisations in Africa and Asia to build capacity in statistical survey methods, in order to transfer the statistical knowledge developed at the University of St Andrews to the front line of conservation – where these methods have real impact on conservation, on wildlife management, and on the communities that are affected by wildlife tourism, conservation actions and poaching activities.