What if the images you take on your trips and publish on social networks serve something more useful? According to a recent study, published in Current Biology, tourists can provide wildlife monitoring data comparable to traditional study methods. The authors, led by Kasim Rafiq, analyzed 25,000 photographs of 26 groups of tourists to study the population densities of the five main predators (lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and wild dogs) in northern Botswana, which makes it in one of the first studies to use tourist photographic data for this purpose.
The idea of using tourist resources came when Rafiq was trapped in the mud on a Botswana path while following in the footsteps of a leopard he had been looking for for months. When he managed to break free, the guides who helped him told him that they had seen the leopard in the morning. “At that time, I began to appreciate the volume of information that guides and tourists were collecting and how it was being lost,” says Rafiq.
To test whether photographs of fans and visitors could be used for wildlife observation, the researchers provided GPS trackers for tourists, originally designed to track domestic cats. This allowed researchers to tag wildlife photographs later with location data. The photographs were filtered not only by identified species, but also by the individual animal, for the main predators, and then analyzed using computer models to estimate population density.
“The results suggest that for certain species and within areas with wildlife tourism, the data provided by tourists can achieve a goal similar to traditional methods of study, but at a much lower cost,” concludes Rafiq. “If we could combine the advances in artificial intelligence and automated image classification with a coordinated effort to collect images, perhaps by partnering with tour operators, we would have a real opportunity for the rapid and continuous evaluation of wildlife populations in tourism areas.”