A team of Australian statisticians have built a virtual reality so conservationists can work on programs to save the endangered Peruvian jaguars without trekking through the jungle.
The idea was born when Professor Kerrie Mengersen of Brisbane-based Queensland University of Technology (QUT) was asked by a Peruvian conservation agency, the Lupunaluz Foundation, to help create a jaguar corridor that would run the length of Peru, connecting national parks and protected areas, so the animals could move through safely.
But she and her colleagues realised there was little data about jaguar habitats in Peru.
“There are few recorded sightings of jaguars… but there’s a lot of local knowledge and also expert knowledge around the world,” she explains. “But how do we get at that?”
At up to 100 kilograms in weight and two metres in length, jaguars are the apex predators of the Americas. They once ranged from the southern US, through Central and South America, all the way to Argentina.
Although they remain a key species in Amazonian ecosystems – with spiritual significance to Indigenous people – their numbers are declining, due to persecution, climate change and a loss of both habitat and prey.
Once 400,000 strong, today there are just 20,000 jaguars. Up to 18,000 were killed each year in the 1960s and ’70s, says Mengersen, partly for their beautiful coats, but also because farmers saw them as a threat to livestock.
In response, the UN’s International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared them “near threatened” on its 2013 Red List of species at risk of extinction.
While conservation corridors for jaguars have been created in Brazil and Colombia, none yet exist in Peru – which is where the Lupunaluz Foundation and Mengersen have stepped in.
After collecting data and footage on month-long expeditions, Mengersen and her team created richly detailed virtual reconstructions of potential jaguar habitats using cutting-edge equipment, including 360-degree cameras and drones.
With the aid of virtual reality headsets, the team’s reconstructions allow experts to transport themselves into the jungle and judge for themselves where jaguars may be lurking.
“If we can immerse you in that environment as an expert, that really activates your memory and expertise much more than just looking at a map,” she says.
“We ask questions like, ‘How likely is it that a jaguar would live in this region?’, ‘How sure are you about that?’ and ‘What factors led you to that decision?’.”
They then combine this information with a wealth of knowledge on the environments from local people, such as the indigenous Shipibo people, and observational data to “build a much richer map of where jaguars might be living, breeding, and moving… [therefore] allowing us to build a conservation corridor in an optimal manner,” Mengersen says.
Conservation corridors are particularly important for jaguars as they travel great distances.
“Some have been known to move from Central America a long way into South America,” she says.
“If we can identify corridors where they move, then [those corridors] can be part of lands connected and protected by the government, so animals moving through won’t be shot.”
So far, all the experts they’ve approached have been very enthusiastic. “Most are really intrigued because they like to see what the virtual reality is like,” she says. “And that sparks conversations and information. But we also find that they’re very willing to be involved… They want to do what’s best for these animals.”
Both Shipibo leaders and Peruvian government officials have been very interested in the virtual reality images, which has encouraged them to have conversations and engage with environmental groups, such as Lupunaluz.
Mengersen’s jaguar work is one of several of her team’s conservation projects using technology to augment information in situations where there’s little observational data.
Others have focused on orangutans in Indonesia and cheetahs in southern Africa, while Australian projects are mapping koala corridors and collecting dive footage to build a virtual Great Barrier Reef.
Applying technology and statistical modelling to conservation is important to ensure that data underpins policy-making and encourages “decisions to be made based on quantitative evidence”, says Mengersen.
Referring to jaguars specifically, she adds: “If they’re happy, then the jungle is happy. If they disappear, then there are problems, because their disappearance means that a whole lot of other species and environmental factors have also disappeared or degenerated. They’re a very key indicator of forest health… and are a prime example of a species we should be saving.”
Apart from data, Mengersen has collected many fantastic tales of encounters with these “majestic and nomadic creatures”.
There are dramatic tussles with giant anteaters or Amazonian relatives of the alligator. Other stories tell of jaguars waiting to pounce upon sea turtles clambering up the beach to lay their eggs.
“The jaguars would hide in the jungle and then leap out and… drag them into the forest,” says Mengersen. “These stories and the people who had encountered and lived alongside jaguars in the rainforest are just extraordinary.”
John Pickrell is a Sydney-based science writer and the author of Weird Dinosaurs and Flying Dinosaurs.
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