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Wildlife threats can be identified using AI technology

A groundbreaking study led by the University of Sussex reveals how artificial intelligence (AI) and social media are becoming invaluable tools in detecting threats to wildlife around the world. 

The research team employed AI to sift through online data from various platforms including Facebook, X/Twitter, Google, and Bing, to unveil the global scope of hunting and trade threats facing bats.

The study sheds light on the power of social media and online news, contributed by both journalists and the public. These platforms enhance our comprehension of wildlife threats on a global scale, thereby steering conservation efforts in new directions. 

Bat exploitation for hunting and trade 

The Sussex researchers pinpointed 22 countries previously unrecognized by conventional academic studies as participants in bat exploitation for hunting and trade

Notably, countries like Bahrain, Spain, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and Singapore were identified, with Singapore having the highest number of new records.

Large-scale searches for bat exploitation 

By developing an automated system, the team was able to execute large-scale searches across several platforms efficiently. 

AI technology played a crucial role in filtering through tens of thousands of results to isolate pertinent data, compiling a comprehensive global database of “bat exploitation records” from observed or anecdotal evidence.

The comparison of these online records with traditional academic findings highlighted the influence of global events and internet accessibility on the information shared online regarding bat threats. 

Keeping up to date with current wildlife threats 

“Using data sources like this provides a low-cost way to help us understand threats to wildlife globally,” said lead author Bronwen Hunter, a PhD student in conservation and data science at Sussex.

“AI allowed us to access the data at scale and complete a global analysis, which isn’t something we would have been able to achieve using traditional field studies.” 

“Another benefit of using online data combined with automated data filtering is that more information can be obtained in real-time, ensuring that we can keep up to date with current threats.” 

Mitigating threats to bats

Highlighting the critical role of bats in ecosystems as pollinators, seed dispersers, and pest controllers, the study emphasizes the urgency of understanding and mitigating threats to these mammals. 

Despite making up about a fifth of all mammal species globally, over half of bat species are classified as “threatened with extinction” or “data deficient.”

The slow reproductive rates and long lifespans of bats, often spanning 10-30 years, render them susceptible to pressures akin to those faced by larger mammals.

Study senior author Fiona Mathews, a professor of environmental biology at Sussex, expressed concern over bat hunting and trade, especially during the Covid pandemic, and the importance of identifying exploitation hotspots. 

Vital evidence from the internet 

“The hunting and sale of bats for meat was highlighted during the Covid pandemic. But there is also a worrying trade of bats as curios or medicines,” said Mathews.

“It is vital that we understand where bat exploitation is happening, and this has been very difficult historically because it often happens in remote places, and illicit trade can be hidden. This research shows that posts on the internet and social media can provide vital evidence, that can now be followed up on the ground.” 

Future conservation strategies 

The experts advocate for the integration of social media and online platform contributions into future conservation strategies, offering a more holistic view of bat exploitation and other wildlife threats. 

“Unsustainable wildlife trade can pose a threat to bat species being hunted or harvested. Often, species are sold much further afield from where they are found. This trade can undermine bat conservation directly and pose a wider threat in terms of increasing the risk of zoonosis,” said Kit Stoner, the CEO of the Bat Conservation Trust.  

“We welcome the results of this research in providing a possible new low-cost way of detecting trade in bats which could offer a way of monitoring how this wildlife trade operates and examining ways of disrupting it.” 

The study is published in the journal Conservation Biology.


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