NEW YORK (August 17, 2016) – A team of scientists from WCS, University of York, and Uganda Wildlife Authority have developed a new method of detecting illegal activities in protected areas by as much as 250 percent.

Using ranger-collected data from SMART, the team developed a method to improve ranger patrol allocation, targeting different combinations of conservation priorities.  As a result, they were able to predict where illegal activities were occurring and concentrate resources accordingly.

In a field test in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Protected Area (QEPA), detections of illegal activities such as cattle encroachment and wildlife poaching increased by as much as 250 percent without a change in ranger resources.

The breakthrough methodology owes its success to the use of SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool), a free downloadable tool that combines software, training materials, and patrolling standards to conservation and protected area managers to improve patrolling methods.  The tool is being increasingly used around the world and has already been implemented in 43 countries and in more than 120 protected areas.

The authors, Rob Critchlow and Colin Beale of the University of York; Andrew Plumptre and Mustapha Nsubuga of WCS; and B. Andira, M. Driciru, and A. Rwetsiba of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) published their results in the early online edition of Conservation Letters.

The authors say that the easily implemented method can be used in any protected area where data on the distribution of illegal activities are collected, and improve law-enforcement efficiency in resource-limited settings.

“This is the first indication that altering ranger patrols on the ground can result in considerable benefits for conservation,” said Dr Rob Critchlow, Research Associate in the University of York’s Biology department. “We are keen to test this approach across other protected areas to assess its applicability to different types of protected areas.”

Co-author Dr. Andrew Plumptre, Senior Scientist for WCS’s Africa Program, said: “SMART is now being used in more than 120 protected areas across the globe and we strongly encourage the use of technology to aid biodiversity conservation. The method shows how such data can be used effectively to strengthen patrolling. Importantly this improvement is made at the same cost and results in a more efficient and effective deployment of rangers.”

As shown in a previous analysis published in Conservation Biology, different illegal activities often occur in different areas and this has implications for managing and directing ranger patrols.

Said Dr. Colin Beale of University of York said: “In addition to targeting particular types of illegal activity, such as poaching for elephant, our new method can also incorporate different conservation priorities such as focusing on both cattle encroachment and firewood collection. It shows there are trade-offs to be made in which illegal activities are targeted and where.”

Said Margaret Driciru, UWA Warden for Monitoring and Research of the QEPA: “One of the approaches used by UWA for managing the protected areas is based on the principle of Threat Reduction which involves: identification of threats to the protected areas, ranking the threats, identifying strategies for reducing the threats, implementing these strategies and monitoring the effectiveness of the threat reduction strategies. Hence the Ranger Based Data Collection system is a means of quantifying how the threat levels are changing as well as the effectiveness of our threat reduction strategies. We are happy that the analysis of these data will help us to improve in our ranger patrol effectiveness.”

The scientists and practitioners encourage the collection and analysis of ranger-collected data to inform changes to existing ranger patrols for improving patrol efficiency and effectiveness and are grateful for all UWA rangers and staff involved for allowing the testing in the QEPA.

The study comes less than a month away from the kick-off of the IUCN World Conservation – a once-every-four-year gathering of conservationists and world leaders.  This year’s Congress will be held in Hawaii from Sept. 1-10.

This work was funded by the UK Government Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund through WCS.