WWF tracks wildlife recovery from Black Summer bushfires with AI, machine learning

Wildlife experts are surprised to see animal populations recovering across eastern Australia following the devastating Black Summer bushfires.  

Key points:

  • WWF is tracking the recovery of animal species after the Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being used to identify animal species after they are photographed
  • Researchers say animals are recovering “surprisingly” well after the fires

The Eyes on Recovery project conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International, and local land managers and research organisations is using artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor the recovery of animal populations since the 2019–20 bushfires.

Across eight fire-affected regions in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Victoria 1,100 sensor cameras were installed.

Bushfire recovery research regions:

  • Kangaroo Island, SA
  • East Gippsland, Vic
  • South Coast, NSW
  • Southern Ranges, NSW
  • Blue Mountains, NSW
  • Central Coast, NSW
  • Hunter, NSW
  • North Coast, NSW
  • South East Queensland

Researchers collected more than 7 million photos that were analysed using AI technology to identify more than 150 native animals.

WWF program coordinator Emma Spencer said the results have generally been positive.

“Even deep within those heavily fire-impacted areas there are signs of recovery, from threatened species like koalas,” she said.

“In the East Gippsland area, in particular, we’ve been getting a lot of images of our beautiful long-nosed potoroos, which are endangered in the region.”

Billions of animals lost

Nearly 3 billion koalas, kangaroos and other animals were predicted to have been killed or displaced as a result of the Black Summer bushfires.

A WWF Australia study labelled it the worst single event for wildlife in Australia, and among the worst in the world, and that it likely pushed some species into extinction.

Emma Spencer checking a sensor camera attached to a tree in the Blue Mountains
Emma Spencer is coordinating the program to monitor how species are recovering after the bushfires.(Supplied: WWF)

Dr Spencer has been amazed to see that animal populations are beginning to recover even in decimated habitats that were at the centre of bushfires’ destruction.

“I walked out in a lot of these areas, right after the fires,” she said.

“It’s very hard to imagine sometimes when you’re walking through that blackened landscape that anything could have survived and moved back in following the fire.

“There was a deal of surprise when, especially in those sites that were … so deep in the fire-impacted country, that we were getting not just one, but a few of those threatened species returning.”

The photos are analysed by a program that uses AI and machine learning (ML) to identify species.

It is the first time the platform has been tested on Australian wildlife and, after training, it can recognise species with about 90 per cent accuracy.

Wallaby jumping through snow in East Gippsland
Cameras were installed in more than seven regions across eastern Australia to monitor wildlife recovery.(Supplied: WWF)

Using the technology means reviewing the images and supporting the wildlife is a more “efficient” process, Dr Spencer says.

“That means we know where the potoroos are straight away, we know where the brush-tailed rock wallabies are straight away,” she said.

“And that means we can get out and actually enact management activities, go out there and conserve those species sooner rather than later.”

Interventions to help wildlife

The data helps to inform a range of management and conservation interventions, including controlling invasive species, providing temporary artificial refuges for animals that have lost their homes and rewilding areas.

Dr Spencer says species are likely recovering well in East Gippsland due to the region’s small population of feral animals compared to other parts of eastern Australia.

Lyrebird passing in front of camera in East Gippsland
A lyrebird was captured on one of the cameras in East Gippsland.(Supplied: WWF)

“So that’s perhaps why we’re seeing such strong recovery of species like the long-footed potoroo and the long-nosed potoroo for instance,” she said.

Terrestrial ecologist at the University of Sydney Christopher Dickman said the effect of the bushfires on feral animals was largely unclear due to a lack of data except for Kangaroo Island.

“They did appear to have a substantial decline in cat activity in the wake of the fires,” he said.

“So it seems the fires had a negative impact on feral cats.”

Fox walking through snow in East Gippsland
The recovery of feral animals, such as foxes, is slower in East Gippsland compared to the other regions.(Supplied: WWF)

Professor Dickman says feral animals are a larger threat post-bushfires as they can disrupt the recovery of native fauna that were already vulnerable.

“Foxes and cats are very mobile, whereas the prey species they tend to select are much smaller,” he said.

“After a fire, the fire reduces populations by a certain amount across the board.

“Foxes and cats are much better able to respond by moving in from unburnt areas into the burnt areas than the prey species simply because of their mobility.”

Monitoring to continue

The research program ends in July but many of the cameras will remain, with WWF’s ground partners continuing to monitor the wildlife recovery.

Dr Spencer says it’s important to keep monitoring the habitats.

Efforts to save greater glider after Black Summer

A new study has offered a glimpse of hope for researchers battling to conserve the endangered southern greater glider.

“There wasn’t a lot of monitoring going on before the fires,” she said.

“We actually weren’t able to really get a good idea on what we’d lost post-fires.

“So if we have another fire event, which we eventually will, we’ll know exactly how much we’ve lost and how to recover it.”

Dr Spencer said Black Summer was not an “isolated event” and that AI technology could be used to assess and monitor wildlife after future natural disasters.

“We’re expecting to get more frequent severe fires like this, but we’re also seeing lots of floods and then there’s all the droughts as well,” she said.

“This technology can be applied to help us more rapidly monitor wildlife following all those peaks of disaster events.”

But Professor Dickman says the program does have some limitations such as its inability to capture all animals.

“Some of the small reptiles, some of the frogs, greater gliders, yellowbelly gliders — they tend to spend more time in the treetops, and we’re less likely to see them on camera,” he said.

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