Wild animals and the human jungle

Image of Gillian Tett

Fifteen years ago, Thomas Snitch fell in love. Not with a human being, however: he and his wife had been trekking in Uganda and encountered some gorillas in the wild. And that sparked a passion for finding ways to protect these creatures from increasingly frequent attacks by poachers.

Initially, Snitch, a University of Maryland trustee, supported the dizzying multitude of wildlife funds that have sprung up in the west in recent years. But then he had a brainwave. As an adjunct to his academic work, Snitch advises the US military on how to predict the movements of insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a view to using satellite devices to foil roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

One day, as Snitch was staring at his satellite maps of Iraq, he spotted a similarity to something he recognised from his wildlife passion. For just as insurgents tend to move across landscapes in predictable ways in order to plant landmines, poachers follow familiar patterns to place snares too. The professor started testing algorithms and satellite-mapping techniques – including material gathered from drones via his consortium known as GeoEye – and became convinced that he had stumbled on a powerful new way to prevent animal deaths. “We have found that terrorists are to poachers as IEDs are to animal snares [and] as US troop targets are to tigers, rhinos and gorillas,” Snitch says passionately. “Simply stated, the models work for either situation.”

It might almost seem a heartwarming tale. After all, the number of animals being killed by poachers has spiralled in recent years, as impoverished Africans and Asians rush to meet soaring demand for animal parts from countries such as China. In the first half of this year alone, for example, poachers killed 281 rhinos in South Africa, compared with 418 in 2011 and 333 in 2010, according to government data. Though figures for the rest of Africa are more patchy, similar increases in rhino poaching are believed to be occurring there, and of gorillas and tigers.

But, sadly, there is a catch. When Snitch approached the various anti-poaching NGOs – which number around 18 in Africa alone – he was rebuffed. Some groups already use some satellite imagery. However, most do not. And none expressed any desire to co-operate; instead the charities simply told him to send money instead. Even when he offered to use his team of scientists, with access to US or Israeli military drones for free, there was no interest in his idea.

Why? Snitch thinks that part of the problem may be that the NGOs felt threatened by his novel idea; if an outsider came into “their territory”, with a technology that might reduce the poaching problem, the raison d’être of these wildlife funds might be undermined – and thus their ability to raise money. “In a weird way, these folks would rather turn down the offer of free help to save the rhinos, than be put in a position where their annual report states that fewer animals are being taken by poachers,” he fumes.

For my part, I suspect cultural prejudice is also a factor. The kind of environmental activists who work for NGOs tend to be wary of computer-wielding geeks with military connections – doubly so, given the controversies that surround the use of drones in places such as Afghanistan.

. . .

But whatever the truth about those gorillas and rhinos, perhaps the key moral is the lesson this tale reveals about silos. Back in July I wrote a column about some of the great benefits that individuals or institutions can enjoy when they manage to jump across mental and intellectual silos. Since then, I have had a plethora of emails from readers offering inspiring examples of such silo-busting in action.

But what I did not stress enough in my column is that attempts to silo-bust may not just be innovative. They can also have a nasty habit of upending the power structure, or of challenging conventional hierarchies. And so – sadly – for almost every story I was sent about the benefits of silo-busting, I received numerous examples of frustration. There are individuals in the US, for example, who have tried to change the operations of municipal government – but have met with fierce union opposition. There is a well-meaning academic at a west coast university who has tried to promote interdisciplinary research – only to learn that this could threaten his tenure track. And a senior individual in one large pharmaceutical company described how she tried to brainstorm with other researchers – only to be told that she should not “give away” her departments’ secrets.

Thankfully, not everyone is deterred. Snitch, for example, remains dedicated to using his algorithms and drones in novel ways. He is working with police groups in Washington DC, for example, to explore how satellite technology could cut crime. And notwithstanding the wariness of environmental NGOs, his team has started some pilot projects in Bhutan, Rwanda and Nepal to track the poachers, tigers, gorillas and wardens. But do not expect a revolution soon, far less any dramatic change in those poaching statistics. “I have spent years trying to kick down silos in Washington,” Snitch laments. Sadly – and notwithstanding the rhinos – it is an all-too-common tale.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.