Using Technology to Stop Poachers: The Altai Project

August 5, 2011 |
In July 2011, TAP collaborators James Gibbs (SUNY-ESF) and Arkhar NGO led a pair of electronics hobbyists into remote Altai to install first generation electronic poacher detectors. They successfully installed 6 such detectors, and we are already getting reports that they are working nicely, with a few minor glitches in satellite coverage. Read on below to hear the story first hand from Greg and Sean.
Frequently Asked Questions
What did we build?
• Essentially, we have built poacher detection systems within the most common hunting grounds. When a poacher drives a vehicle or lights a fire in one of these areas, a signal is silently sent to enforcement officers by email.
• The devices are solar powered and intended to lay in wait, hidden, 24 hrs per day, 365 days per year.
What impact could the devices have?
• Consider this: In the Altaisky biosphere reserve about 30 rangers patrol the 3,532,234 hectare region. Random patrols could only monitor a tiny fraction of this.
• According to Dr. Gibbs, whose main research focus is in wildlife conservation, this technology could change how parks monitoring poaching. Instead of random patrols, enforcement officers could change their focus to sting operations. The increase in efficiency (and morale) could be very substantial.
• This point was echoed by Russian park enforcement officers. When asked what they may do when the traps are triggered, they said they could fly in with helicopters to make an arrest. Right now, helicopters are not warranted for such low probability of arrests.
• Safer for the rangers. There is a strategic benefit to knowing that poachers are quite possibly in a specific region. Random patrols never have this certainty – meetings are often a surprise to both sides. Rangers have been killed recently in Siberia, not far from where we have been working. Nobody knows who killed them but it was likely poachers and smugglers.
Was it successful?
• Yes, the concept has been proven to work. All six units we installed are up and running and sending ”check in” messages. They were even tripped successfully a week later on a blind test. In addition, we established a strong working collaboration with the Russian nature reserve rangers that will allow us to further develop and enhance the poacher detection systems.
Why Siberia?
• It is a long way to travel to implement prototypes, but we did want to test them under the harshest conditions.
• Altai has some of the most endangered species that are at risk of poachers. Poaching is a serious problem in the region and stopping it now while there are still animals left is key.
• Dr. Gibbs and The Altai Project both have long-term collegial relationships with people in the region.
Why amateur electronics?
• Wildlife biology and amateur electronics are, oddly enough, a natural fit. Custom electronics is very expensive to develop, yet wildlife conservation is typically stretched for funding.
• Dr. Gibbs contacted us in the hopes that we could alter one of our hobby projects to fit his needs. We were interested and thought the cause was good so took on the work on a shoestring budget. Perhaps because amateur electronics enthusiasts have to work on small budgets we were pre-adapted to making a contribution to saving endangered wildlife where the budgets are also surprisingly modest.
The Story
A few years ago, a few Victoria friends got together and started a small club to work on electronics projects. They meet every Thursday night and call themselves “Geeknight”. At Geeknight there’s a lot of rivalry. Greg and Sean started building and racing GPS guided boats on Victoria’s Elk Lake. Sean’s ultimately crashed into a rock wall at about 30 KM/H, Greg’s worked properly. That’s about par for the course. After racing GPS boats, Greg and Sean had an idea to send a small solar powered, autonomous boat out into the Pacific Ocean ( It is a big project and we ended up getting deeper into GPS, solar power and efficient design than we ever thought.
We blogged about it and shared a lot of what we were doing on-line – both about our progress and how we were doing things. About a year into the project, somebody commented on one of our posts. It was a section on how we hacked into a device called a “SPOT GPS Messenger”. These handy devices make it possible for hikers to send an “I’m OK” or a “Help” message to people back home – virtually anywhere on Earth. We had made the SPOT device solar powered and took control over the user interface with a circuit board we designed. This was all so that we could get a GPS position on this autonomous boat long after it had been launched.
The commenter was intrigued and after a few on-line comments, said he thought what we had developed could be used in wildlife conservation. He asked if we wanted to collaborate on a project. To be honest, there are a lot of internet scams and our blog was getting spammed ten times a day, so we did the prudent thing and Googled him. It turned out he – Dr. James Gibbs – is a PhD Professor of Conservation Biology in Syracuse, New York. He is really well published and researches wildlife conservation, including the behaviour of wildlife poachers. He spends many months each year in the field in far reaching places around the world. We began to correspond with James and after a few days we had roughed out a project where James would use some of his grant funding to cover prototyping expenses and Greg, Dave and Sean would volunteer time. We knew at the time that travelling to install these electronics out in the wilderness would be part of it, if it got to that stage.
James described the problem succinctly: How do you protect wildlife in a zone that is millions of hectares with only a few conservation officers?
He described the situation as a needle-in-a-haystack. Area patrols can only cover a very small fraction of the area and then only briefly. Poachers might only enter an area once every few months. Catching poachers of endangered species is very tricky, and the odds are against the animals. Snow leopards for example: there are only about 3,000-7,000 left in the world (about 150 left in Russia) and it is estimated that 10-20% are lost each year due to poaching. The cats are resilient, so given a chance they can rebound, moving back into the area and reproducing. That’s how they have been hanging on – reproductive potential.
Dr. Gibbs’ research is about analyzing the behaviour patterns of poachers. Although the areas are vast, poachers need to go through certain pinch points such as roads or places to stay at night. His idea was to detect when humans enter a pinch point zone and then send an alert to wildlife conservation officers. After some discussion and a lot of emails we designed and built small, solar powered, concealable electronics capable of monitoring an area 24 hrs per day, 365 days per year.
There are a variety of detectable ways that humans are distinct from animals – they light fires, drive cars, operate machinery, fire rifles, have human faces. So, we have built and are building sensors that:
• detect campfires
• detect vehicles on road ways
• detect human faces in images
• detect motor and gun shot sounds
A significant challenge to monitoring these remote areas is that there are virtually no means to transmit information. However, the SPOT devices mentioned above work almost anywhere in the world. The devices use the SPOT GPS Messenger made by SPOT LLC to let conservation officers know when a sensor has been triggered and where. Depending on the situation, we may also trigger a photograph of whatever triggers the sensor. The really innovative aspect of this technology is that it is real time. Conservation officers will receive an email only a few minutes after the devices are triggered. If all goes well, they could intercept the poachers before they do damage.
James brought Jennifer Castner into the project to help with logistics. Jennifer is the director of The Altai Project ( – a project of Earth Island Institute), located near San Francisco and specializes in grassroots environmental conservation in Siberia. She is skilled in logistics and speaks fluent Russian. Through the two of them, they were able to raise grant funding through the Weeden Foundation and Trust for Mutual Understanding for further prototypes and travel. On July 6th, Sean and Greg travelled to Russia to meet with James, Sergey Spitsyn, a Russian wildlife biologist and director of Arkhar NGO, and two Russian rangers – Pavel Aronov and Sergey Abramov. Together they spent 11 days in very remote areas of the Altai Republic in South-central Siberia. At the direction of the Russian wildlife biologist, they installed six units. All are functioning. Some actually have already been tripped. We learned later these were tripped by a known expedition. But at least we know they work!
A Rough but Rewarding Trip
Although the trip was ultimately successful, it was not without challenges. Sean’s backpack didn’t arrive in Moscow – it was misrouted and delayed in Vancouver. That was pivotal to the trip. At the urging of the Russian hosts, we did not wait two days for the bag to catch up to us because we were pressed for time already. The pack had some really useful things in it – spare parts, solar regulators, and Sean’s sleeping bag and mat.
Some of the devices were damaged in the travel – 16000 km of flight travel and 700 km of road and off-road travel each way. Luckily we had spare parts and were able to deploy all six that the rangers wanted. As a result, Sean and Greg had to improvise on some of the installations by using parts we scavenged from other components. It’s difficult to do in a tent in the middle of nowhere. But, in the end, all the sensors we installed are up and running, still sending us check-in messages.
The Region
The new technology was deployed in the Altai Republic in Siberia. The region is home to many endangered species including snow leopards, Argali big horn sheep and musk deer, species depleted almost everywhere by overhunting and poaching. The region is high in the mountains, up to 4500 meters above sea level (approx 10,000 feet) with temperature ranges of -50ºC to +30ºC. Common in the region are hawks, ground squirrels, cranes and giant 40 pound marmots. We saw a glimpse of a wolverine and signs of argali.
Next Steps
We returned to Canada more enthusiastic than ever. During the travels, James, Greg and Sean discussed ways of improving what we’ve got and expanding the capabilities. We already have funding to develop new sensors and travel to South America in about 6 months. There, we’ll be doing field trials on a completely different kind of sensors – detecting human faces, motor sounds and using “break beam” traps. Our collaborations with James and Jennifer and the Russian wildlife biologists are hopefully just beginning. We will be pursing additional grant funding to expand the number of devices into a full network in Altai. We hope to mature the technology by developing and marketing a “plug-and-play” version that is easier to install in the field.