On the Brink: Can Technology Save Tigers from Extinction?

ByKen Hu

July 29, 2020

Ken Hu

Just 3,900 tigers are left in the wild.

From trophy hunting to use in traditional medicine to habitat encroachment, human activity has remained a consistent threat to the tiger’s existence. Their numbers have declined by more than 96% in just one century − from over 100,000 to the shockingly small number alive today. With three of the Earth’s nine tiger subspecies already extinct, the remaining six are endangered.

As we reflect on conservation and preservation on International Tiger Day, it’s sobering just how close we really are to losing the king of the jungle forever. However, there is hope. There are steps we can take, and are taking, with technology to stop this from coming to pass.

The Decline of the Amur Tiger

Source: National Forestry and Grassland Administration Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center / A still shot of an Amur tiger from the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park

The health of an ecosystem as a whole tends to be reflected by how well its apex predator is faring. And in the forest land that frames the Russia-China border, the Amur tiger isn’t faring particularly well.

Habitat loss and poaching has seen its numbers in the wild drop to around 500 over the last century, a fate shared by the Amur leopard, which roams the same forest regions in East Russia and Northeast China. Tasked with the survival of the region’s big cats, scientists from China’s Beijing Normal University and Russia’s Leopard National Park began surveying wildlife in the region back in 2015. They found evidence of at least 38 tigers and 84 leopards in a small, isolated area of 4,000 km². Encouraging news for sure, but three times the number of cats that an area of this size can support. 

Local forest ranger Liu Guoqing

Penned in by sea to the south and east, and marshlands and railway infrastructure to the north, the cats had to expand west into northeast China. If they didn’t, it would only be a matter of time before they were gone forever. However, they needed a suitable habitat – big cats need an unbroken food chain in wide, open, and undisturbed spaces connected by natural corridors for roaming. Each female Amur tiger, for example, needs an area of at least 500 km² to thrive.

Ecologists have been hard at work restoring the forests on the Russia-China border, the culmination of which is the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park, which opened in August 2017. Covering 14,600 km², the park forms a natural corridor for the cats to expand their territory. As well as serving as the only habitat and breeding area for wild Amur tigers and Amur leopards in China, it represents one of the highest pockets of biodiversity in the northern hemisphere.

The Digital Protector

However, the park alone isn’t enough. To ensure the cats survive, conservationists need to understand a wide array of factors: their distribution, habitats, the species they interact with, their hunting behaviors, and of course the threats they face, like forest fires and poaching. All of this requires huge amounts of data and, to be effective, this data needs to be available in real time.

Previously, rangers had to collect memory cards from the old camera traps every few months – tasks that were as dangerous to forest rangers as they were time-consuming and laborious. Moreover, the whole data collection process could take up to a year. Data and images were too old to be useful. 

That changed with advances in digital technology that gave rise to the park’s pioneering “sky-to-earth” conservation system – the first and currently only solution of its type in the world. Underpinned by a high-speed telecommunications network, sensors in the ground, air, and water provide detailed and precise information about the ecosystem’s environment.

Huawei Engineer Zhao Xinsheng

High-definition images and footage of wildlife in their natural habitats can be transmitted back to the park’s HQ in real time, which is then processed and organized using artificial intelligence.

The solution is a turning point in the work of the research center. Data about species, populations, and habitats can be transmitted in the blink of an eye – not months. Rangers and scientists can maintain clear lines of communication through voice and video and monitor the cats in real time. This data gives them the information they need to allow the big cats not just to survive, but to repopulate and thrive.

Research Scientist Dr. Feng Limin

A Vision of the Future

In the last year, as well as two sightings of the extremely rare white roe deer in the park, conservationists have discovered new litters of cubs in the tiger and leopard populations of northeast China. At least ten tiger cubs and six leopard cubs were caught on camera, finally giving hope to those who devote their lives to protecting them where, under a decade ago, there was little. And that can give us all hope for the return of the king of the jungle. 

Source: National Forestry and Grassland Administration Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center / Over the past 18 months, more than 1,000,000 images of wildlife and habitats have been captured been captured.

As increasing numbers of technology-driven initiatives are showing around the world, I believe more than ever that technology holds the key to solving many of the environmental threats facing humanity.

Read more information about the Huawei digital inclusion initiative TECH4ALL and watch the full video on the Amur tiger and Amur leopard conservation project.

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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Ken Hu

Rotating Chairman, Huawei

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