Using maths to save rare animals and plants from poachers

February 25, 2014 by Karen Gillow

Environmental scientists have developed a new, low-cost way to save rare animals and plants from poachers and plunderers – using maths.

In a new study, researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), the Wildlife Conservation Society, Imperial College London and the Uganda Wildlife Authority are using a cunning mathematical model to outwit poachers in central Africa.

By studying the poachers' incursion patterns and prioritising patrols, the technology can improve protection of endangered animals and plants where they most need it, while minimising patrol and conservation costs, say Dr Richard Fuller and Dr James Watson of CEED and The University of Queensland (UQ).

"The great thing about this approach is that it can be applied anywhere in the world," says Dr Fuller. "For example we can use it to minimise disturbance of shorebirds in Queensland, or to tackle the weed invasion in Australia."

The problem of patrolling to protect and plants is that budgets are usually tiny, Dr Fuller explains. "Patrol teams often consist of several rangers who have to cover a massive area.

"Our study in central Africa shows that patrols are usually carried out near patrol stations where rangers are based, and they aren't very effective at stopping beyond a few kilometres."

The scientists carried out the research in Africa's Greater Virunga Landscape – one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, with 13 protected areas covering 13,800 square kilometres. The team studied which areas had the most illegal poaching and logging, the impact on wildlife, and the cost of patrolling the threatened areas.

"We included all this information in a mathematical model that prioritises the location of patrols," Dr Watson says. "For example, since the poachers know well where the patrol bases are, patrollers should target more remote areas – a hotspot for illegal poachers – by extending their patrols."

"The study shows that this reduces the cost of meeting all conservation targets in the landscape by as much as 63 per cent. By providing a big picture view of the entire landscape, the model enables us to maximise conservation efforts on a limited budget."

Dr Fuller says that apart from deterring illegal poaching, the approach can also be used to prevent disturbance of threatened species by human activity, or to prevent major weed invasions.

Using migratory shorebirds in Queensland's Moreton Bay as an example, he explains that the State government can impose hefty fines on people whose pets and cars disturb the birds.

"They also set up patrols to enforce the rules, but it's exactly the same problem that we had in Africa – small budget, big area," Dr Fuller says. "The same goes for our growing weed problem – it's usually small teams of people trying to tackle the problem, but there are millions of hectares of Australia to be covered.

"With this model, we can now help rangers target their routes and provide the best protection for our native wildlife and plants, even when they have a limited budget."

Dr Watson says using maths in this way is smart conservation: "It means we can protect and save more species for the same investment. The same thinking can be used to target pandemic issues like illegal hunting for the Chinese medicine trade, feral animal control, or insect and weed or disease invasions."

Explore further: Powerful tool to fight wildlife crime unveiled

More information: Plumptre, A. J., Fuller, R. A., Rwetsiba, A., Wanyama, F., Kujirakwinja, D., Driciru, M., Nangendo, G., Watson, J. E. M., Possingham, H. P. (2014), "Efficiently targeting resources to deter illegal activities in protected areas." Journal of Applied Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12227

Related Stories

Powerful tool to fight wildlife crime unveiled

September 11, 2012

A free high-tech tool to combat the wildlife poaching crisis was offered to grassroots rangers by a consortium of conservation organizations at the World Conservation Congress.

Scientists in fight for embattled protected areas

March 4, 2013

( —Many parks and protected areas around the world are being assailed by poachers and encroachers, but a new study suggests scientific research in the parks helps to reduce such threats.

Recommended for you

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...

How cells in the developing ear 'practice' hearing

November 25, 2015

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular ...

How cells 'climb' to build fruit fly tracheas

November 25, 2015

Fruit fly windpipes are much more like human blood vessels than the entryway to human lungs. To create that intricate network, fly embryonic cells must sprout "fingers" and crawl into place. Now researchers at The Johns Hopkins ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.