Lion Guardians Hope To Protect The Species With Facial Recognition Technology

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Lion Guardians, a Kenya-based conservation group, is using facial recognition software and images of individual lions to try and protect the threatened species with a little help from crowdfunding, CIO reports.

Most of the continent’s lions survive in national parks and reserves in six countries: Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, according to Defenders.

Their range once included Syria, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and Northwest India, according to National Geographic. More than a million roamed the Earth 2,000 years ago. In the 1940s, there were an estimated 450,000 lions.  Today, fewer than 21,000 are thought to remain in Africa, though the estimates vary — but not by much, relatively speaking.

The Lion Identification Network of Collaborators, or LINC, is a crowdfunded project from Lion Guardians and it represents a collaborative effort with lion researchers across East Africa and software developers around the world, according to CIO. The software development was led by IEF R&D in the U.S. IEF R&D is a design, engineering and fabrication company focused on developing solutions to social and technological challenges.

The Lion Identification Network is helping researchers monitor where lions go in their migrations, and their population levels.

Not much is known about lions’ movements through Africa. Tracking them involves a bunch of problems. GPS transmitters are expensive and adult lions don’t have recognizable coat patterns, unlike leopards and cheetahs whose spots make identification easier.

In the past, lions could only be identified through photographs taken with high-quality cameras that focused on specific identification zones, such as whisker spots. Facial recognition of lions would open the door to millions of photographs taken of lions by the public and provide a platform to share that information, thereby increasing knowledge of lion populations, CIO reports.

The tool will use an open database and the latest computer vision techniques, accessible via an online web portal. Users will upload lion sightings onto LINC. LINC will use facial recognition software to match the new photos with observations in the database by focusing on specific facial elements such as whisker spots and eye markings.

LINC will allow intensive monitoring of lions across their range, rather than being restricted to localized projects. Within the next few months about 1,000 lions will be added to LINC, CIO reports.

LINC will also provide information on the date, time and location a lion was seen, lion demographics (gender, approximate age, presence of cubs), and an individual identification.

These data will be interpreted using advanced facial recognition technology to match photos contributed by users. The automated system match will be verified by lion researchers.

The project was implemented over eight months from October, 2014 and was launched in June including fundraising, database development, and facial recognition software and website portal, according to CIO.

African lions could be extinct by 2050, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants them to get protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a ScientificAmerican blog.

The decision to list the big cats as threatened—one level below endangered—would allow the U.S. government to provide some level of training and assistance for on-the-ground conservation efforts and restrict the sale of lion parts or hunting trophies into the country or across state lines, according to the report.