Why Your Holiday Pics Could Help With Animal Conservation

On your next holiday, go crazy with your picture-taking -- it could help save endangered animals.

Conservationist Kasim Rafiq once spent months searching the woodlands of Botswana for a one-eared leopard named Pavarotti.

The search came to an abrupt halt one day when, while following tracks of the hard-to-spot animal, Rafiq's Land Rover found itself stuck deep in an abandoned warthog burrow.

After sitting idle for hours -- no Pavarotti in sight -- he finally encountered a tourist group.

"Eventually I got out of the hole and spoke with the safari guides who I met on the road nearby," Rafiq said.

Laughing, the guides told him they'd spotted Pavarotti earlier that morning.

Rear view of an open safari jeep with tourists watching and photographing a lion on an early morning safari drive in Namibia. Image: Getty

It was a light-bulb moment for Rafiq, a wildlife researcher at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK.

"At that point, I really began to appreciate the volume of information that the guides and tourists were collecting and how it was being lost," he said.

Tourists who head out on African safari take thousands and thousands of photos of the animals they encounter -- animals like Pavarotti -- and unknowingly collect valuable conservation data right there on their memory cards.

But when they leave, the photos go home with them. Researchers want to change that.

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Traditionally, animal population surveys in Africa are done using one of three methods: camera traps, track surveys, and call-in stations.

However, developing accurate estimates of wildlife numbers is tricky. Elephants knock over expensive camera traps, cheeky lions might take off with them completely.

Mother cheetah and cubs – Masai Mara, Kenya. Image: Getty

Current methods are expensive, and with resources for conservation largely limited and shared among multiple entities, it is difficult to create accurate estimates of population numbers in the wilderness.

In a bid to test whether tourist photographs could be used as a cheap method of wildlife surveying, Rafiq and his team provided groups of visitors in Botswana's Okavango Delta with small GPS trackers.

With researchers now able to see where photographs had been taken, more than 25,000 images passed through computer models to estimate the densities of African species including lions, hyenas, leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs.

The method is useful for monitoring numbers of uniquely identifiable animals -- for example, the spotted leopards -- in small areas.

The results of the study, published on Tuesday in Current Biology, determined tourist snaps provided similar estimates to traditional methods of surveying and were cheaper to collect and process.

Son and father saw the animals on safari in nature park

"Getting accurate estimates is fundamental to conservation," Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle Matt Hayward, who was involved with the study, told 10 daily.

"If we don't know how many there are and where they are we can't implement conservation activities and we don't know when to implement those activities."

But we do it so infrequently, so we need to do so much better in our censusing.

According to a UN report published in May, some one million species are threatened with extinction,  many of which will be lost within decades if current rates of decline do not change. This is more than any number of threatened species seen in human history.

More than 40 million people travelled to sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 alone, often with a camera or smartphone in hand.

It's an open door for citizen science to play an important role in conservation, Rafiq said, and could change the way ordinary people meaningfully participate in conservation efforts.

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Moving forward, it would take the involvement of tourism operators to make a more large-scale impact.

"We want to get more private game lodges on board, particularly in Africa which is the biggest market, and even India it could also work with tigers and jaguars in South America," Hayward said.

"So if we could get more of those lodges linking up with conservation scientists then we could get some really long-term intensive study going on the wildlife in those places."