This article appeared in BrisbaneTimes.com.au:
Queensland researchers bringing the Amazon to the experts to save jungle cats
Published: April 9, 2016 10:26PM
Sometimes, you just have to move the mountain to Muhammad.
Or, as the case may be, the Amazon to the world.
In the race to save jaguars, one of the globe’s most secretive and threatened species, researchers and conservationists are hoping to create corridors for the jungle cat to safely travel through, tracks of land across South America, which would remain protected and give the jaguar the best chance of survival.
Hampering those efforts is knowledge or in this case, the lack of it. The animals are rarely seen and, in the words of the Queensland University of Technology researcher leading a world first project to help save the cat, the habitat
suitability maps researchers have to go off are “very sketchy”.
But many hands make light work. After a “serendipitous” meeting with Vanessa Hunter of the Lupunaluz Foundation, an Amazon conservation organisation in Sydney last year, Professor Kerrie Mengersen of the QUT School of Mathematical Sciences mentioned the work her “amazing colleagues” Ross Brown and Justine Murray were undertaking to study rock wallabies in Australia using virtual reality.
Ms Hunter mentioned her work saving jaguars and the Amazon in Peru and together they created a sketch of the plan to take virtual reality technology and apply it to protecting the Peruvian cats and their habitat.
Leading a small team that included her QUT colleagues, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers and Ms Hunter’s Lupunaluz Foundation, Professor Mengersen headed into the jungle to collect the data which is crucial to understanding not only the animals themselves, but the environment and how they react to the pressures it is currently facing, including mining and deforestation.
“Since we can’t take all the experts to the Amazon jungle, we thought instead about ways that we could take the jungle to the experts,” Professor Mengersen said.
“How can we do this? Enter virtual reality.
“We can make VR environments for different sites in the jungle, put experts into these environments and extract information about whether jaguars would live, hunt or move through those sites and why.
“We have found that we can obtain very detailed information from this process, much more than we can obtain from using other elicitation methods.”
But that information is not enough to save the cats alone. And that’s where mathematical and statistical modelling comes in.
“We can use the expert’s information along with available data to construct models that help us to estimate numbers and locations of jaguars in places we haven’t visited, as well as predict future trends and impacts of such threats as hunting, deforestation and climate change,” she said.
“So in this way, VR and maths/stats can then make a valuable contribution to the evidence base required for conservation of these amazing animals.”
Which, Professor Mengersen said, combined the “ooh ahh of virtual reality” with the “ah ha of science”.
“It’s a big team effort, involving researchers with a range of expertise, as well as jaguar and jungle experts and conservationists.
“It’s also the first time that our partners, the Lupunaluz Foundation, have been able to create an evidence base for conservation. They can use the VR, as well as the mathematical and statistical models to better identify jaguar corridors across Peru.
“It’s very exciting for us all.”
But it’s most exciting for the jaguar with the combination of tech and brain power giving the elusive animal its best chance of survival, given that “at present, there is no concerted effort in Peru to create these corridors”
“A jaguar that is unable to breed is a dead jaguar,” Professor Mengersen said.
“A jaguar moving through an unsafe area without protection is a dead jaguar. Jaguars have large territories and have been known to roam between whole countries.
“They need to be able to do this safely. Through the efforts of the Lupunaluz Foundation and our project, we want to identify the best areas for these corridors in Peru and link hese to similar corridors in other countries that have been identified in other countries by big cat charity, Panthera.”
But bringing the Amazon to the experts is only one step in the process.
Once the researchers have finished extracting the expert information needed for the mathematical and statistical models, another, and more comprehensive jaguar abundance study is on the cards, with locals and the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment “keen to help” the researchers after seeing their initial work.
“So we need to plan that and work out how to fund it,” Professor Mengersen said.
“…The local people in one of the conservation areas, Imiria, want to develop a master plan for sustainable conservation, tourism and development. And of course, we want to go back to the beginning to identify a jaguar corridor across Peru.”