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How Game Theory and Artificial Intelligence Help Wildlife Conservation by Outwitting Poachers

Apr 25, 2016 01:19 PM EDT
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Injured bull elephant treated by Zimbabwe conservationists

Poaching is one of the greatest threats in the conservation of wildlife, and even patrol rangers' extreme efforts are not enough to completely fend off poachers, especially in very large protected areas.

"In most parks, ranger patrols are poorly planned, reactive rather than pro-active, and habitual," said Fei Fang, a Ph.D. candidate in the computer science department at the University of Southern California, in a statement.

With these in mind, researchers, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation and the Army Research Office, have developed a new Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based application employing game theory to efficiently map out patrol routes and areas.

According to the press release of National Science Foundation, game theory uses mathematical and computer models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers to predict the behavior of adversaries and plan optimal approaches for containment.

The application, dubbed "Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security" or PAWS, uses mathematical models to effectively analyze data from previous patrols and evidence of poaching. The more data fed to the application, the more it can "learn" the topography, terrain, natural paths, foot traffic and animal traffic of the protective area.

As a result, the application can map out practical patrol routes that can minimize time, energy and resources. The application also has the ability to randomize patrol routes, making it difficult for poachers to predict any types of discernible patterns.

"If the poachers observe that patrols go to some areas more often than others, then the poachers place their snares elsewhere," Fang said.

The AI-driven PAWS was created in 2013 and was first used in Uganda and Malaysia in 2014. The researcher presented their study at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference last February.

"This work is not only important because of the direct beneficial impact that it has on the environment, protecting wildlife and forests, but on the way that it can inspire others to dedicate their efforts into making the world a better place," said Sara Mc Carthy, a Ph.D. student in computer science at USC, who also developed a similar AI-based application limiting illegal logging in Madagascar.

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