Tourists on Safari Can Help Survey Wildlife through Their Photos

A more affordable and efficient way of surveying wildlife in Africa could be through observing photos snapped by tourists.

Tourists on Safari Can Help Survey Wildlife through Their Photos
Photograph of a spotted hyena. Megan Claase, Rafiq et al./Current Biology 2019

What if your snapshot of a roaring lion ready to attack its next prey caught during your African safari trip could help provide wildlife monitoring data for scientists? It turns out that this is exactly what one research paper published on Monday in Current Biology suggests. 

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25,000 photographs from 26 different tour groups were analyzed by researchers surveying the population densities of five top predators in northern Botswana: lions, spotted hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs. 

This is one of the first types of research that utilizes tourist images for the specific purpose of surveying.

Safari guides + a stuck car = an idea is born

Lead author of the research, Kasim Rafiq, then a Ph.D. candidate at Liverpool John Moores University, cooked up the idea after his Land Rover had been stuck in a warthog burrow. Rafiq had been on the one-eared cheetah's, called Pavarotti, trail for months at this stage. 

"Eventually I got out of the hole and spoke with the safari guides who I met on the road nearby, and who were laughing," said Rafiq as he's about to embark upon a Fulbright Fellowship at UC Santa Cruz. He's looking to further expand the project while at UC Santa Cruz. 

"They told me that they'd seen Pavarotti earlier that morning. 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," continued Rafiq, upon commenting on the safari guides. 

Traditional data gathering methods

Typically, one of the three methods is used to gather animal population surveys in Africa: camera traps, track surveys, and call-in stations

Tourists on Safari Can Help Survey Wildlife through Their Photos
The modern camera trap. Source: WWF

These all come with their pros and cons, especially while surveying wild animals who can easily chew into or knock over certain traps and plans. Moreover, costs can wind up jumping up when creating these specific stations, or when materials are lost.

After a few frustrating losses of data, Rafiq started using this new tourist-friendly method. 

In order to ensure the data was as accurate, if not more accurate than the traditional methods, the team of researchers simultaneously used both methods, to begin with. 

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"The results suggest that for certain species and within areas with wildlife tourism, tourist-contributed data can accomplish a similar goal as traditional surveying approaches but at a much lower cost, relative to some other methods," said Rafiq. 

Going a step further, Rafiq wonders: "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."

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