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Undercover robots: On a mission to stop poaching

  • North American wildlife agencies have been using motorized remote-controlled taxidermied poaching target decoys to catch unlawful hunters for over two decades.
  • The decoys help enforcement agencies safely witness poaching firsthand and apprehend hundreds of unauthorized hunters, acquire hefty enforcement fines, deter potential violators and save real animals’ lives.
  • Robots of different species with new movements are constantly in the making.

When we think of poaching, trapped, slaughtered and mutilated apes, big cats, pachyderms and other tropical animals fallen prey to the multi-billion dollar global black-market wildlife trade usually come to mind. But unlawful hunting doesn’t just claim lives abroad. It runs rampant in remote parts of North America too, where hunters annually illegally kill tens of millions of protected animals that end up outnumbering legally taken game.

Wildlife officials have been deploying an undercover corps of robots across the continent to catch poachers and curb hunting in restricted regions and time periods, as well as hunting using roadways and motor vehicles, for over two decades. These motorized remote-controlled taxidermied bots serve as decoys for poaching targets–they can move their tails, heads, legs and ears like actual animals, swivel around a base, and slide along a short aluminum track. Poaching usually occurs without witnesses, involves evidence that can easily be destroyed and affects victims that can’t speak, making wildlife law enforcement particularly challenging. But these robo creatures help understaffed, underfunded and poorly equipped enforcement agencies safely witness poaching firsthand and apprehend hundreds of unauthorized hunters, acquire tens of thousands of dollars in enforcement fines, deter potential violators and save real animals’ lives.

“They’ll never be able to write tickets, but they certainly help our officers,” says Candy Thomson, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) Public Information Officer. “Generally speaking, you’re going to have somebody shooting from a car so they’re on the road, and we’ve set it [the decoy] up off the road. You can’t tell from the distance in low light it’s not live. They take their shot and we’re nearby. It removes the officers from the danger area of trying to catch somebody.”

Remote-controlled robotic decoys of a fox, raccoon, deer, wolf, bear and turkey. Photo credit: CRW, Inc.

After getting tipped off about potential poaching activity in an area, usually by locals who notice lights in the woods or shots in the fields, wildlife officials place a decoy in a vulnerable open setting here. Then they hide in a bush or truck nearby with the remote. They use it to move the robot, flicking its tail, turning its head, twitching its ears or shifting its leg to trigger a poacher’s shot. Once the poacher has fired, the officials arrest him or her in the act, backed by evidence for prosecution.

“They [the decoys] definitely help game wardens catch poachers. The courts have ruled that if somebody is shooting a decoy, they are in violation,” says Linda Winter, Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust’s (HSWLT) Administrative Program Coordinator. “Sometimes it helps nab somebody with multiple hunting violations.”

Just this January, two poachers charged with hunting after hours from a vehicle lost their hunting privileges for spotlighting and shooting one of the NRP’s robo-deer from a road on state property in Leonardtown, Maryland, last October. Officers staking out the site had walked over and stopped Maryland’s David James Few, 21, and Pennsylvania’s Brian Kelley Stitely, 24, a little after 10:30 P.M., as Stitely was reloading his crossbow in the hunters’ truck. The judge revoked Few’s hunting license and gave him two years’ probation. Stitely, who was already prohibited from hunting till 2019 because of previous deer poaching violations, received an extended penalty lasting until 2023, reports a local magazine.

The NRP also owns robo-bears and robo-turkeys. Like many other fish and game enforcement organizations, it switched over from non-mechanized decoys to keep up with poachers.

“As poaching gets more sophisticated, we have to become more sophisticated as well,” says Thomson. “We adapt, they adapt and then we have to adapt to whatever it is they’ve changed to.”

Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) Corporal Joshua Keeney deploys a robo-turkey in Baltimore County before spring turkey season this April. Photo credit: NRP.

Behind the technology

Based in Mosinee, Wisconsin, Brian Wolslegel has been building bot beasts for conservation for over twenty years. After graduating from firefighting school, he spent three years in his friend’s dad’s taxidermy business, making simple non-robotic decoys for local conservation officers. The officers suggested incorporating robotics into the dummies to make them movable and more lifelike and effective, so the taxidermists began experimenting with the first models whose ears and tails could move.

Wolslegel eventually took over the business; in 2003, he founded Custom Wildlife Robotics. He now sells about 100 of the mechanical props ever year, getting almost daily requests from New York, Virginia, California, Texas and elsewhere. His catalog includes pheasants, turkeys, pigs, deer, pronghorns, moose, lynxes, foxes, coyotes, wolves and bears. He constructs them from polyurethane, covers them with animal pelts he acquires from hunters, game wardens and online vendors and fixes on reflective eyes that glint under light at night. For remote-controlled motion, he attaches servomotors, similar to the ones in toy cars and planes, to the head, tail and limbs.

“Anything that people will poach, we have made decoys out of,” he says. “It’s like winning a lottery ticket–a wild animal, a poacher and an officer at the same scene at the same time. It’s highly unlikely. They [Officers] are able to provide this target at a scene where they’re already watching, rather than spend the entire night at a spot where they may not see anybody.”

Custom Robotic Wildlife’s Brian Wolslegel with his most popular white-tailed deer decoys. Photo credit: CRW, Inc.

The HSWLT established its Robotic Decoy Program in 2004, aiming to bridge the gap between poachers and police by donating Wolslegel’s robo-animals to supplement wildlife law enforcement. HSWLT gets more requests than it can promptly fulfill from state and local fish and wildlife agencies around the country for specific decoys where they’ve identified poaching as a concern. The organization moves down its waitlist, prioritizing states that don’t yet own any of the mechanical dummies, and orders them from Custom Robotic Wildlife. The initiative has distributed 30 robotic animals to 21 agencies in 20 states, a treaty tribe and a Canadian province, averaging about five or six annual donations in recent years. It also works with enforcement agencies to catch many poachers. Some groups feel it’s more effective if there’s no press about these efforts so offenders can remain in the dark about the mechanical animals, notes Winter.

Multiple features make the robotic animals an effective, popular tool for wildlife law enforcement. The mechanical creatures are lightweight and easy to handle during operations; the average white-tailed robo-deer, Wolsleger’s most popular item, weighs 22 pounds. The dummies are also customizable according to different poaching grounds’ needs. What’s more, the decoys are durable and long-lasting. Their motor is replaceable, and their Styrofoam core sustains little projectile damage. According to HSWLT Director of Stewardship James Reed, even those that have been shot over 100 times appear intact over several years, and even more realistic due to elemental exposure. And given they’re not alive, they can repeatedly take the hit for real fauna and incriminate poachers without any loss of life or danger to personnel, which makes them cost-effective, especially if donated. Wildlife agencies make up to $30,000 in fines per decoy, which more than makes up for the cost of acquisition and can sponsor other conservation activities.

On the other hand, the robots do have limitations. They’re expensive for game wardens, who have few financial resources, to initially obtain. Decoys start at $1,050 and go up to $5,000 for a moose. Thompson points out that whether they’re worth the expense depends on buy-in from the courts, which have the ultimate power to penalize and stop apprehended poachers. Winter adds that repairing the shot dummies, although easy, is still a task. Another downside to the technology is that it loses effectiveness with use; poachers catch on to the ploy, become wary of the decoys and their programmed motions and stop shooting them. Then the bots must be moved, replaced or modified with new movements to outsmart hunters.

HSWLT’s James Reed and Bob Koons donate a robotic elk decoy to the Oregon State Fish and Wildlife Department in 2009. Photo credit: HSWLT.

As HSWLT fundraises to donate more robotic wildlife and eradicate poaching, Wolslegel is finishing a deer dummy this week that picks up its white tail and poops brown M&M’s through an augur system, an inclined conveyer system. Federal officers at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service have ordered this model, which Wolslegel anticipates to be his most advanced yet. As his three kids, who get to eat all the other colored M&M’s in the bag, might tell you, wildlife robotics just keeps getting better.