Using AI to help save wildlife after bushfires

One of Australia’s largest-ever remote sensor camera projects, the Eyes on Recovery program has collected and analysed millions of wildlife photos from regions devastated by recent catastrophic bushfires. These images will inform the future protection of threatened species – including the timing and management of hazard reduction burns. The huge 2019-2020 fires tore through around 10 million hectares of territory across south-eastern Australia – in Queensland, Victoria, NSW and South Australia. Wildlife populations were hit hard and feral predators moved into burnt forest remnants to hunt down the survivors. Ecologists knew far more data on species survival was essential to manage future threats and boost survival and recovery.

“Certain species such as bandicoots boomed after the rains came through and brought back the vegetation in some areas,” says Dr Emma Spencer, ecologist and program manager of the Eyes on Recovery project. “But it does mean we have a huge accumulation of green stuff that could go brown pretty quickly if it dries up this summer.”

A collaboration between WWF, Conservation International, and local land managers and research organisations, with the support of Google, the project uses powerful artificial intelligence tools to sort through the remote cameras’ images, assist with species recognition and track wildlife recovery.

Manually sorting through the images would be impossibly time-consuming, Spencer says, and it could delay urgent management actions needed to provide help to the wildlife that needs it most. So an AI program has been trained to identify more than 150 Australian animals in millions of photos taken by sensor cameras in eight fire-affected regions: the Blue Mountains, Hunter and central coast, north coast, south coast and southern ranges in NSW, east Gippsland in Victoria, Kangaroo Island in South Australia and south-east Queensland.

Volunteers help provide human oversight for the AI model, which has proved to be remarkably accurate. The model is hosted on the global online Wildlife Insights platform, which is freely available to anyone collecting wildlife images. The photos can be uploaded and the platform will sort them out, Spencer says.

As well as effective AI tools, the Eyes on Recovery project has been assisted by the advancing technology and falling cost of remote sensor cameras. “As they have become more affordable over time, we’ve been able to get a lot more out into the environment,” Spencer says. “We need to get hundreds if not thousands of eyes out on the ground to see how animals are recovering.”

The images can bring heartening news. One of the camera traps snapped a photo of a tiny Kangaroo Island dunnart that popped into view after the fierce bushfires had ravaged nearly all the dunnarts’ habitat on the island. Researchers feared the sharp-toothed little mammal had been wiped out. “But we found one in one location then all of a sudden they were popping up in every location we had cameras,” Spencer says.

With proof the dunnarts have weathered the fires, Eyes on Recovery partners has advised the National Parks and Wildlife Service on fire management programs, and Spencer says there is a lot of support for the deployment of artificial refuges in future hazard reduction burn areas.

These refuges, along with temporary artificial nest boxes, can help a struggling species get back on track, as can the removal – as far as possible – of feral predators, such as cats and foxes, and competing feral herbivores, such as deer. “They could be something on the ground that an animal like a dunnart can hide under or nest under,” Spencer says. “The fires removed a lot of the vegetation in some areas; the animals can get under the refuges, hide out, and avoid predators such as feral cats.”

The camera traps also record the proliferation of feral animals, which is an important part of the work of monitoring initiatives like Eyes on Recovery, Spencer adds. “We want to know where threatened species are like, like dunnarts or quolls or koalas, but we also want to know where their threats are,” she says. “Post-fire we know that feral animals like cats will spread into areas that have opened up, where there is improved hunting and fewer places to hide for small mammals.”

If the cameras find a lot of foxes in an area with threatened species, she adds, programs could be put in place to target those foxes.

“It’s also informing the way we do hazard reduction burns,” Spencer says. Essential to minimise the risk of massive bushfires, these burns can be managed to move through the landscape as cooler or less-intense burns, which largely affects only groundcover, rather than setting canopies alight. Data from the Eyes on Recovery project can assist with making decisions on burn management, she adds. “It helps us understand what kinds of fires should be moving through some of these environments in the future with hazard reduction.”

Australian Financial Review