An increasing number of wild animals are contracting diseases from both humans and domestic animals, and it’s challenging to monitor and assess their health status.
This is according to University of Cape Town’s Associate Professor Amir Patel who’s on a mission to track and monitor the status of wild animals using robotics and artificial intelligence.
Patel says monitoring the health of animals is difficult and his project is developed in response to this challenge. “It’s very difficult to monitor animals in the wild because it requires drawing their blood, assessing their droppings, and other time- and resource-intensive monitoring that does not allow rapid disease identification and interventions to address the problem,” he said.
The plan is to employ techniques traditionally used in robotics, such as computer vision, machine learning, mechanical modelling and sensor fusion, to remotely measure the vital signs of wildlife. He has started with the data collection process and developing the algorithms to accurately monitor lions, as the first attempt.
“Novel diseases can decimate entire wildlife populations and ripple through ecosystems as pathogens find hosts without immunity. As an example, lions – an endangered species – can contract canine distemper from domestic dogs, or bovine tuberculosis from cattle, which can then spread through a pride if not detected early,” he said.
The technology is expected to provide ecologists and veterinarians with an early warning system to help them detect if an animal is ill, which in turn could help prevent the spread of a disease through the animal population and back to humans.
He hopes that his technology will form part of a broader management and monitoring strategy at national parks in South Africa. He shared that, despite its infancy stage, officials at South African National Parks (SANParks) have agreed to use this technology in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – a wildlife preserve and conservation area on the border of South Africa and Botswana – and in the Kruger National Park in Limpopo, once it’s ready for roll-out.