March 11, 2009

New Software May Help Stop Tiger Poaching

A team of scientists has unveiled a new piece of software that is able to identify individual tigers by the unique stripe patterns on their coats, which the developers say will make it easier to estimate tiger populations and aid conservation efforts, BBC News reported.

The technology can also match skins sold on the black market to photographs of the animals taken using camera traps, researchers based in the UK and India reported in the journal Biology Letters.

The researchers based the program on similar software originally designed to scan the markings of grey seals and identify them from photographs.

Once it was adapted for tiger stripes, they combined it with a 3D map of the surface of a tiger's body, enabling them to effectively unwrap the pattern of stripes from an image of a live animal and match it to picture of the flat skin.

"Tigers are very secretive animals and it is a major challenge to estimate their numbers," said Dr. Ullas Karanth, a researcher from the Wildlife Conservation Society India Program, who worked on the project with the UK-based company Conservation Research.

Karanth said he came up with the idea of using camera traps - hidden cameras operated by trip wires - to monitor tiger populations more than a decade ago.

Experts now use a combination of this automated photography for tagging and tracking the animals in order to monitor their numbers.

However, Karanth says each new photograph of a tiger had to be compared with every animal in a database of images, something he called a "laborious process."

"No piece of software is as good at discerning shapes as the human brain, but we can use this to shortlist the most likely matches, and then eyeball the photos in that shortlist," Karanth told BBC News.

During trial testing, Karanth and his colleagues found images of three tigers that, it turned out, had later been killed by poachers, which inspired the designers to build in a forensic tool that could be used to trace the origin of any skin to a photograph of the tiger.

The program was also adapted for other species with unique markings, including leopards, zebras and salamanders.

Simplifying the process of identifying tigers from camera trap images would be very beneficial to conservation research, according to Belinda Wright, the executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an organization that investigates every tiger death in the country.

Unfortunately, opportunities to find the origin of a confiscated tiger skin are rare, she said, adding that skins are often seized in very remote locations, and decent photographs of them are hard to come by.

She also stated that camera trapping is not yet carried out continuously in all of the areas throughout India where tigers live, which would be necessary to maintain a census of the tiger population, she said.

She believes that until camera trapping is a regular and ongoing process, the usefulness of the promising software will be limited.


On the Net: