Counting on AI to keep tabs on orang utan numbers

KOTA KINABALU: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely to become a major tool for the conservation of the Bornean orang utan here.

WWF Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) are working together to create an AI technology that can automate data collection, conduct analysis and interpret drone images of orang utan nests.

If successful, this will replace the tedious manual method of monitoring orang utan by physically mapping their distribution and estimating their population by counting their nests.

Conservationists are looking at AI technology to take the images from drones, and to analyse orang utan nests from these to reduce time, labour and cost implications of counting work.

It would also allow scientists to quickly and accurately monitor the population of the primate, said WWF Malaysia in a statement in conjunction with World Orangutan Day today.

UMS computer science PhD student Amanda Amran, who is currently working on the project, said aerial images of orang utan nests might look similar to those of other animals, such as the giant squirrels and eagles.

Other objects that might look similar are dead trees and clumps of branches and it is important to get AI to recognise orang utan nests, she added.

“Just like our orang utan experts, AI must carefully learn the features of orang utan nests. AI needs to learn in great detail features such as nest structure, material and the position of the nests on trees.

“At this early stage, we are developing a machine learning model to first recognise the general features of the nests. After that, it has to learn more intricate details,” she said.

The research marks the first step in exploring the world of AI for orang utan conservation with the aim of developing a deep-learning model that will not only automatically detect and classify the nests from aerial images, but will also be able to analyse these.

The analysis will also help scientists understand the characteristics of the nests, including how these are constructed and how they differ between individuals or populations.

“We can also examine how the nests are used over time, how long they last and how they change with weather patterns. By identifying common patterns in nest construction, we can better understand orang utan behaviour and their relationship with their habitat,” said Amanda.

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