Big data shows tropical mammals on the decline

Jeremy Hance
December 12, 2013

Harnessing big data for conservation.

The world's largest remote camera trap initiative—monitoring 275 species in 17 protected areas—is getting some big data assistance from Hewlett-Packard (HP). To date, the monitoring program known as the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network has taken over 1.5 million photos of animals in 14 tropical countries, but conservationists have struggled with how to quickly evaluate the flood of data.

"Until now, the right data, the technology and scale have been noticeably missing from our field," noted Peter Seligmann head of Conservation International (CI), a partner of TEAM. "What once took a team of scientists weeks, months or more to analyze can now be done by a single person in hours."

Banded mongoose in Tanzania's Udzungwa National Park. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.
Banded mongoose in Tanzania's Udzungwa National Park. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.
The data jump has been provided by HP Earth Insights, a collaboration between the information technology company and CI. HP Earth Insights' Wildlife Picture Index software provides conservationists near-real-time data on the photos, including species frequency and climatic conditions. To date, the index does not include species-recognition data—that still needs to be done by conservationists—however HP hopes to add that in the future.

Still, the Wildlife Picture Index is providing key new insights. According to the program, 60 species out of the 275 being monitored—or more than one in five—are likely seeing population declines. Such findings are alarming, especially given these are animal populations found in protected areas.

Moreover, the data shows signs that a number of species thought secure are actually facing declines. For example, populations of moonrats (Echinosorex gymnura), masked palm civets (Paguma larvata) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) are falling in Malaysia's Pasoh Forest Reserve, while the large treeshrew (Tupaia tana) is vanishing from Indonesia's Bukit Barisan National Park. In Latin America, the greater grison (Galictis vittata) is on the decline in Ecuador's Yasuni National Park while the northern tamandua (Tamandua mexicana) is having trouble in Volcàn Barva National Park. The data is showing similar stories in Africa: in the Republic of Congo's Nouabalé-Ndoke National Park the agile mangabey (Cercocebus agilis) is in decline, while the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) and the four-toed elephant shrew (Petrodromus tetradactylus) are seeing falling populations in Tanzania's Udzungwa National Park. Notably, all nine of these species are currently considered as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List.

"We thought these animals were abundant," Jorge Ahumada, the head of TEAM, told the Wall Street Journal. "We assumed they were fine."

Endangered species are also seeing population declines. Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), considered Vulernable, are declining in Pasoh Forest Reserve and the Critically Endangered western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) has seen its population fall 10 percent in just four years in Nouabalé-Ndoke National Park in the Republic of Congo.

Conservationists hope to use this near-time data to increase protections and lobby policy-makers.

"We can't protect what we don't measure, which is why CI is extremely focused on accelerating our research and having the most accurate and current data to ensure that we are doing the very best to safeguard our natural resources," added Seligman.

TEAM is currently taking photos in seventeen parks:
  • Barro Colorado Nature Monument – Soberania National Park (Panama)
  • Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (Indonesia)
  • Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda)
  • Caxiuanã National Forest (Brazil)
  • Central Suriname Nature Reserve (Suriname)
  • Cocha Cashu National Park (Peru)
  • Manu National Park (Peru)
  • Korup National Park (Cameroon)
  • Manaus (Brazil)
  • Nam Kading National Protected Area (Lao PDR)
  • Nouabalé Ndoki (Republic of Congo)
  • Pasoh Forest Reserve (Malaysia)
  • Ranomafana National Park (Madagascar)
  • Udzungwa Mountains National Park (Tanzania)
  • Volcan Barva Transect (Costa Rica)
  • Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park (Peru)
  • Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve (Ecuador)

Western gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoke National Park in the Republic of Congo. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.
Western gorilla in Nouabalé-Ndoke National Park in the Republic of Congo. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.

Moon rat in Malaysia's Pasoh Forest Reserve. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.
Moon rat in Malaysia's Pasoh Forest Reserve. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.

Northern tamandua in Volcàn Barva National Park. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.
Northern tamandua in Volcàn Barva National Park. Photo courtesy of TEAM/Conservation International.

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (December 12, 2013).

Big data shows tropical mammals on the decline .