Microsoft AI used to save turtle nests from feral pigs in Cape York, Qld

Scientists are putting new meaning into stopping a predator in its tracks.

Using artificial intelligence technology and specialised algorithms, they can now analyse tens of thousands of images for predator tracks and turtle nest locations in Northern Australia.

The world-first system has meant scientists, rangers and researchers can monitor turtle nesting sites across Cape York that are prone to dangerous predators such as feral pigs.

In some parts of Western Cape York, in Far North Queensland, the wild pigs can dig up and eat 100 per cent of turtle nest eggs.

Across the 50km stretch of beach being protected, that represents a loss of about 2000 hatchlings each year.

“We can now monitor twice the length of the coastline in two hours instead of a month,” said Dr Justin Perry, CSIRO research scientist.

“This work has seen 20,000 hatchlings make it to the ocean every season. An entire ecosystem is being stabilised.

“New technology like AI is playing a vital role to bring turtles back from the brink of extinction.”

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While turtles are one of many traditional food sources for Indigenous coastal communities, they are eaten at a sustainable level, but feral pigs can decimate turtle populations if left unchecked.

The program to protect them has been developed as a joint venture between CSIRO, Aak Puul Ngantam (APN) Cape York Indigenous rangers and Microsoft as part of a National Environmental Science Program (NESP) partnership.

Scientists use helicopter or drone imagery combined with cloud computing and AI to identify turtle and predator tracks on remote beaches.

Until now, it’s often been impossible to get to the turtle beach until late July or August after a wet season, when the waist-deep, 100m-wide flood plain is too boggy to traverse – long after the peak nesting period which starts in June.

Rangers wanted to be able to monitor the beach earlier to protect the nests which are most vulnerable in the first few days after the eggs are laid.

That’s when the female turtle’s tracks are still visible to predators and when the scent of her freshly laid eggs is strongest.

The program has already reduced predation levels down to under 30 per cent which CSIRO and APN Cape York believe will safeguard a sustainable population of turtles.

“Rangers are monitoring not only the number of turtles that are coming in and laying, but also the amount of predation that’s happening and putting into place an adaptive predator control program to make sure that as many nests survive as they can,” Cape York Natural Resource Management biodiversity and fire program manager Kerri Woodcock said.

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