Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rangers Turn to Maths to Scramble Animal Poachers

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

Dr Richard Fuller of The University of Queensland said that by studying the poachers’ incursion patterns and prioritising patrols, the technology could improve the protection of endangered animals and plants where they most need it while minimising patrol and conservation costs.

“The problem of patrolling to protect endangered animals and plants is that budgets are usually tiny,” Fuller said. “Patrol teams often consist of several rangers who have to cover a massive area.

“Our study in central Africa showed that patrols are usually carried out near patrol stations where rangers are based, and they aren’t very effective at stopping illegal hunting 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 km2. The team studied which areas had the most illegal poaching and logging, the impact on wildlife, and the cost of patrolling the threatened areas.

Dr James Watson of The University of Queensland said that the researchers included all the information in a mathematical model that prioritised the location of patrols.

“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,” Watson said. “The study showed that this reduced the cost of meeting all conservation targets in the landscape by as much as 63%.

“By providing a big picture view of the entire landscape, the model enabled us to maximise conservation efforts on a limited budget.”

Watson said that using maths in this way was smart conservation. “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.”