Tourists' wildlife photos taken on safari could provide important data to scientists tracking animals' movement and health.
Researchers looked at 25,000 photos from 26 tour groups to survey the population densities of five top predators - lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, and wild dogs - in northern Botswana.
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For the study, they provided tourists with GPS trackers which allowed photographs to be tagged with specific location data. The photos were then filtered by species as well as individual animals, which could be identified by their colouration patterns and whisker spots.
This data was then compared to information obtained through more traditional approaches like camera traps set off by animals, track surveys and call-in stations.
By gathering a large amount of data, with images of each individual animal, the researchers could estimate population densities.
Lead author Kasim Rafiq said traditional approaches can be costly, with some methods, like camera traps, having no guaranteed lifespan.
"For one of my other projects, I had an elephant knock down one of the camera traps, and then lion cubs ran away with the camera. When I collected it, it just had holes in it," he said.
"The results suggest that for certain species and within areas with wildlife tourism, tourist-contributed data can accomplish a similar goal as traditional surveying approaches but at a much lower cost, relative to some of these other methods."
This means that geotagged holiday snaps could assist in the conservation of key animal groups and the researchers believe the cost of manually processing the images which include a geotag could eventually be outsourced to artificial intelligence.
"If we could combine advances in artificial intelligence and automated image classification with a coordinated effort to collect images, perhaps by partnering with tour operators, we would have a real opportunity for continuous, rapid assessment of wildlife populations in high-value tourism areas," Rafiq says.
He says citizen participation was a powerful tool for conservation.
The research was published in the July 22 issue of Current Biology.