A wild boar in a Malaysian rainforest caught on a Conservation International camera.
Conservation International
To find out whether a species is at risk of becoming endangered, scientists typically spend years painstakingly monitoring animals.
Now, powerful computing systems are starting to disrupt that slow process, an influential environmental group says. Applying big data analysis to images from the rain forest, Conservation International found that animal species scientists did not think were at risk are actually experiencing sizable population declines.
They found populations were dropping by roughly 30% among anteaters, armadillos, civets, wild boars, shrews, and moon rats.
“We thought these animals were abundant,” said Jorge Ahumada, the ecologist who directs the organization’s camera trap project. “We assumed they were fine.”
The group announced the results of the big data study at a conference in Barcelona on Monday.
Conservation International started installing cameras in 16 rain forests in 2007 and today operates the largest such network in the world. Soon enough, it had animal photo overload — a collection of 1.5 million images.
Until recently, Ahumada said, scientists didn’t have the capability to analyze the large volume of images generated by the cameras. They could track individual animals in specific locations, but couldn’t see patterns in images taken across forests for all of the 275 species the organization monitors.
Conservation International’s software, which is produced by H-PHPQ -0.77%, has been used by big firms in tech, insurance and other kinds of business.
It’s an example of the sophisticated software that’s being built to help companies and organizations analyze the reams of data they’ve stored, and bring information about the real world into systems that can spot patterns.
These kinds of technological tools are now starting to become available to non-profit organizations and social service groups.
In  a statement, Meg Whitman, CEO, of H-P said: “The results of the early warning system demonstrate the ability of HP to use big data to address the world’s most complex challenges for our customers and partners across sectors, industries and organizations.”
H-P donated the technology to Conservation International.
After presenting the findings, Conservation International says it will now advocate for further study among ecologists to determine whether the animals should be put on the U.S. government’s endangered species list.