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New maps identify poaching threats

"Our research shows that different threats often occur in very different parts of the park," researcher Colin Beale said.

By
Brooks Hays
African elephants remain a preferred (and lucrative) target for poachers. File photo by UPI/David Steele
African elephants remain a preferred (and lucrative) target for poachers. File photo by UPI/David Steele

KASESE, Uganda, May 22 (UPI) -- New poaching maps help conservationists identify risk and better protect animals. The maps are the result of cooperation among scientists and researchers at University of York, in England, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

The maps plot poaching risks inside Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda's most-visited national park. The 764-square-mile park serves as vital habitat for African elephants. But it's also home to illegal hunting.

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Poaching remains a tremendous problem in much of Africa as elephant ivory and rhino horn continue to fetch a handsome price on the black market, especially in Asia.

In analyzing 12 years of poaching data collected by Ugandan park rangers, researchers were able to chart the habits of poachers. The analyzed data included details like location, hunting method and targeted animals.

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Armed with the new data (and software to process it), scientists produced maps that show where and when illegal hunting is most likely to happen. The idea isn't exactly novel; researchers and rangers have tried to execute similar projects before, but new a new computer model has made the process much more accurate.

Analyzing the poaching data for trends and patterns isn't easy, as ranger-collected data is biased by the fact that rangers look for places where they expect to find poachers and illegal kill sites. Frequently finding poaching in these places doesn't rule out the possibility that more illegal hunting is also happening in less-frequently visited portions of the park.

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But new software, called SMART, accounts for these biases.

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"Our research shows that different threats often occur in very different parts of the park," Colin Beale, a biology lecturer and researcher at York, said in a press release. "This means there will now be trade-offs to make in deciding where to invest anti-poaching patrol effort."

"Managers must decide how important one threat is compared with another, for instance how much money should be used to combat elephant poaching versus snaring of wildlife in general," Beale said. "But we have also identified areas where several types of illegal activity occur but rangers rarely visit."

Because the research also showed that poachers don't much augment their preferred hunting locations over time, the new maps will be quite useful and aid in more strategic conservation decision making.

"Protected area authorities in Africa typically invest 50 to 90 percent of their funding in law enforcement to tackle poaching, yet rarely do they measure the impact of their anti-poaching patrolling or evaluate its effectiveness," said Andrew Plumptre, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. "This new method will provide a tool that will enable that to happen."

The new research was published in the journal Conservation Biology.

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