What the Hunt for IEDs Can Teach Us About Stopping Wildlife Poachers

The World Wildlife Fund is sending Google-financed drones to African national parks to track down illegal poachers. But computer scientist Thomas Snitch believes he can do a better job—by applying a mathematical model he developed for the military to find insurgents making improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq.

According to an article in Defense One, Snitch's goal is to overcome poaching networks' advantages in money and manpower. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, for instance, the park rangers make $150 per month protecting endangered animals such as the black rhino. Opposing them are networks of poachers who can sell one rhino horn for $50,000 per kilogram on the black market.

Snitch is skeptical of drones for several reasons. For starters, due to certain U.S. laws preventing the export of military-grade drones and State Department restrictions on the quality of the cameras they can use, any drones sent to Africa will be inefficient in surveying a place like Kruger National Park, which covers 7,850 square miles. And, even if a drone happens to spot a poacher, it won't be of any use unless park rangers are within striking distance.

So, what could be learned from Snitch's experience with Iraq?

"We looked at every IED explosion over the last five years and pinpointed [the explosions] on the maps," Snitch explained to a group gathered at the University of Maryland in the spring of 2013. "On top of that we overlaid where the U.S. troops were when they were hit and what roads they were on. We then took drone intelligence and human intelligence. We came to the conclusion that when an IED blast goes off there's a 90% chance that the bomb factory is between 685 and 750 meters from the explosion. Does that tell you the exact house? No. But the commander knows the perimeter to start looking. We looked at the patterns of where the insurgents moved, what coverage they had and where they can hide."

Snitch suggests applying the same methodology to African National Parks. In this case, the pattern of the poachers is determined by the patterns of the animals:

While much of the poachers' behavior can be analyzed independently, Snitch's model attempts to figure out where the rhino will be at those times when poaching is most likely — that is, around 8 or 9 pm, when the full moon is out during the dry season. (The poachers prefer to operate soon after dark to maximize the amount of time for escape on foot before dawn.)

If you know where the rhinos are, you can anticipate where the poachers will strike….For the model to perform correctly, he needs park rangers to report rhino sightings, fence breaks, tracks, unusual plants or animals, or other abnormalities….

Snitch believes that he can reduce poaching in Kruger Park by 70 percent with just $450,000—considerably less than the $5 million that Google gave to the World Wildlife Fund for the drone program.

Read the full article, "The Secret Weapon in the War on Poaching…and Terrorism," at Defense One.