Researchers Are Using Facial Recognition Software To Save Lions

Software algorithms offer a non-invasive way to track the big cats

HamishPaget-Brown via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Algorithms that can pick a face out of a crowd aren’t just useful for tagging Facebook photos or aiding law enforcement. One conservation group has specially designed facial recognition software to help them distinguish one lion from another on the savanna, reports Millie Kerr for Scientific American.

Lion Guardians, a Kenya-based group, started using a database called Lion Identification Network of Collaborators (LINC) in June. LINC uses facial recognition to track individual lions. Kerr explains:

With LINC, the conservation organization and other wildlife researchers will have an easier way to monitor the beasts' whereabouts. Their movements throughout Africa are poorly understood, and tracking efforts come with a host of difficulties: GPS transmitters are expensive, run out of batteries every one to three years, and can be fitted only when an animal is sedated. In addition, unlike leopards, cheetahs and tigers—whose spots and stripes make identification fairly easy—adult lions lack recognizable coat patterns.

The group plans to use the database to help track the big cats’ movements and better understand how they find mates, prey and water. In turn, that understanding should lead to more targeted conservation efforts.

LINC isn’t the only facial recognition tool now aiding conservation efforts. Even though tigers can be identified by their stripes, Bengal tiger populations are being monitored in part with the aid of a facial recognition system that looks through photos from camera traps. Another software program can recognize the faces of wild chimps.

Scientists are even using similar computational approaches to recognize markings that aren’t faces.  John Platt writes for Scientific American that researchers use software designed for facial recognition to track penguins off the coast of South Africa. That effort keys in on patterns on the penguins’ chests and bellies, rather than their faces. And another group of researchers are reading the patterns of speckles on eggs to understand the effect of brood parasites — cuckoos that lay their eggs in another bird’s nest.

Fortunately, this use of facial recognition technology isn’t likely to impinge on lion privacy rights.

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