Tony Lynam is a seasoned conservationist with over 35 years of experience in wildlife conservation practice, and protected area management, at various academic institutes and NGO’s. Currently, he is the president of the Society for Conservation Biology and works at Wildlife Conservation Society, where he has worked the past 27 years.
Seeing the tigers disappear
Tony started his career in international conservation in the early 1990s as an ecologist counting and studying small mammals, and later elephants and large carnivores, especially tigers. As he explains, he ‘literally watched tigers disappear from a number of sites in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos’ because of poaching and other threats. His camera traps occasionally caught a poacher, and walking through the forests and fields, he and his colleagues could see the snares, the felled trees and other traces that the poachers left behind. But there was little they could do, because their observations were all after the fact.
They used camera traps, but in the 1990s, these were film-based and getting film developed and printed could take weeks. Moreover, internet and mobile phone coverage were not available or still had to be invented, so real-time warnings were out of the question.
Game-changing tools for protected area management
Triggered by the question what would you have liked to know when you started your career, Tony preferred to not have known something he knows now, but have something that exists now: protected area management tools, such as SMART and EarthRanger. Both tools enable the collection of data, not only about wildlife, but also about other aspects of protected areas: when-and-where observations of poachers, snares and other signs of illicit activity, the location of the rangers, their patrols, forest coverage and much more. The tools give an insight into “the human activities that are threatening our tigers, our Asian elephants, our tapirs, our primates … where these threats are occurring and how much of a threat these activities are.”
These tools help study wildlife, but also help managing protected areas and defend wildlife against poaching, encroachment of habitats, illegal trade and other threats. Tony wished they had existed back in the 1990s, so he and his colleagues could not just observe tigers disappearing but effectively prevent it from happening.
As Tony points out, these tools not only help fight poaching directly and immediately, but also help preventing wildlife crime through predictive algorithms – artificial intelligence ( AI ) – that indicate where in the protected area poaching is likely to happen in the near future. SMART has the so-called PAWS ( Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security ) extension which does exactly this. The predictions can inform the planning of ranger patrols and allow for more effective and efficient action against poaching. It has successfully been used in Zambia, Malaysia and Cambodia.
But won’t the poachers respond to the preventive measures that such artificial intelligence helps put in place, turning it all into a cat-and-mouse situation? Tony replies: obviously, yes, poachers will have to respond if they want to continue poaching, and then we will have to find a way to respond to that. Also, poaching will not disappear but be displaced to other areas, which is a problem that needs solving. However, these protected area management ( PAM ) tools still are “a game changer” as Tony puts it.
He sees changes in the situation in parts of Thailand, Nepal and in Bhutan, he and his colleagues have seen increases and even doubling of tiger counts. Tony hopes that this can be replicated in other places. He, is member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cat Specialist Group (CSG) that reviews the status of tigers every five years. The 2022 review showed that they are still endangered species but in some places their populations have stabilized or even increased.
Constantly learning about new technology
Tony has not one recent lesson to share, but many. He is learning new things all the time, and finds the development of technology extremely exciting. For example, he recently started learning how to work with EarthRanger. EarthRanger is a younger sister of SMART which provides real-time visualization of the data that it collects, including the movement of ‘marked’ animals (animals that carry a location sensor ), which can then be shared with managers. Tony mentions that it is a great motivational tool, but also allows immediate evidence-based response to threats. So area protection can be far more efficient and effective. Integrating SMART and EarthRanger would expand possibilities even further, as Tony points out.
Moreover, the technology is spreading to other areas of nature conservation. The Allen Institute for AI, which developed EarthRanger, has also developed a marine version called Skylight for the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It can detect and follow fishing vessels anywhere in the world based on satellite radar and the vessel identification system. Tony explains that clandestine fishing boats – so-called ‘black vessels’ – switch off the identification system, but Skylight can reconstruct their travels based on the switch-off and switch-on locations.
Optimistic about the future of nature conservation
Asked about lessons to be learned for the conservation community, Tony replies that there lots of things left to be learned. As he puts it, exciting things are happening in artificial intelligence and we are bare scratching the surface. “We can predict where animals are moving and poaching will occur. That is the immediate future of conservation”. Tony argues that it will lead to better science and better conservation.
Tony closes off with an equally, or perhaps more important lesson, which is about the value of partnership. Tony : conservationists do their PhD and learn how to sit in a room and do things by themselves. In contrast, SMART is the result of a partnership between ten organizations to develop tools and technology that can then be given away to who needs them to improve conservation. “That partnership has been so successful … [and] an example of what we can do when we work together”.
This article is based on a Zoom interview with Tony Lynam, by Frank van der Most, on 25 January 2023. The article is part of the WildHub community’s Conservation Catalyst program.
With many thanks to Tony Lynam for his enthusiastic participation ; to @Thirza Loffeld for introductions ; and to @Ross Rowe for patient and instructive coaching.
Photo : Tom Fisk, Pexels