NSF Uses Artificial Intelligence to Tackle Illegal Tiger Poaching

Posted by Jon Millis

26.04.2016 09:23 AM

AI to the rescue. Forget doomsday scenarios of robots transforming humans into paperclips. This time it’s more positive. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it’s turned to artificial intelligence as a critical weapon in the fight against poaching.

Whether killed for skins, “medicine”, or trophy hunting, tigers have been devastated by illegal shooters. Poachers have driven the population of wild tigers down from 60,000 in the early 1900s to just 3,200 today. And with protection relying heavily on human capital and resources that just aren’t there, governments and nonprofits have to get smarter about how they enforce the rule of law before tigers (as well as other species, forests, and coral reefs) disappear.


Currently, ranger patrol routes are mostly “reactive”, keeping tabs on the areas that have been hit hard before and preventing what they can. An NSF-funded team at the University of Southern California, however, has built an AI-driven application called Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS) that makes patrolling more predictive, and hence, more effective. PAWS incorporates data on past patrols, evidence of poaching, and complex terrain information like topography, to determine the highest-probability patrol routes while minimizing elevation changes, saving time and energy. As it receives more data, the system “learns” and improves its patrol planning. The application also randomizes patrol routes to avoid falling into predictable patterns that can be anticipated by poachers.

The NSF said that since 2015, non-governmental organizations Panthera and Rimbat have used PAWS to protect forests in Malaysia. The research won the Innovative Applications of Artificial Intelligence award for deployed application, as one of the best AI applications with measurable benefits.

This is not the first instance of leveraging AI for good. Unfortunately, the public is bombarded with negative depictions of AI, with stories like targeted online ads and Facebook’s almost eerie knowledge of its user base dominating the headlines. That’s because negativity sometimes sells more headlines. The truth is, like any technological advancement, the power of AI is in the hands of its users. AI can vastly improve human productivity and thus raise living standards, solve problems, discover new breakthroughs. As more applications like PAWS come to light, we hope that more people will see the incredible good that comes from the power of data, supplementing human expertise to drive towards solutions for the most pressing social, economic and environmental issues of our day.

Topics: Artificial intelligence

2 responses to “NSF Uses Artificial Intelligence to Tackle Illegal Tiger Poaching”

  1. Michael Kruger says:

    Hi. Can you tell me what group of researchers at USC it is doing this research?

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