DURHAM, N.C. – The WildTrack Specialist Group, a global network of biologists and conservationists dedicated to using only non-invasive techniques to monitor and protect endangered species, will be launched April 22 to celebrate Earth Day.

Members of the group, which includes conservation professionals from 12 countries on five continents, monitor a wide range of species, from black rhinos in Africa and tigers in Nepal, to jaguars in Brazil and tiny endangered dormice in Israel, Greece and the United Kingdom.

Instead of tags or collars, they use advanced data analytics and artificial intelligence, combined with non-invasive on-the-ground tracking techniques, to monitor the animals in their watch. These techniques include footprint analytics, acoustic monitoring, trail cameras and traditional knowledge shared by local guides, park rangers and trackers.

“In addition to allowing us to identify a species or individual animal -- and its sex and age-class – from the distinguishing footprints it leaves or the sounds it makes, this hands-off approach offers two other major advantages,” said Zoe Jewell, co-founder of WildTrack and an adjunct faculty member at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“First, by eliminating the need for physical contact between conservation professionals and wild species, it removes the risk of disturbing the animal, and helps protect us from the risks of contracting and transmitting wildlife-borne viruses,” she said.

“Second, it’s a highly accessible approach that empowers local communities to bring their observations and expertise on local wildlife to the platform,” she said. “This helps democratize conservation and boost public engagement in it.”

The approach is based on an award-winning footprint identification technology (FIT) that Jewell and fellow WildTrack co-founder Sky Alibhai developed using JMP software from SAS and in collaboration with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information. FIT allows people to collect an animal’s footprint data from anywhere in the world, using only a cellphone app and then upload the data to a global matching database on the Microsoft Azure analytical cloud platform.

“After uploading their data, they get immediate feedback from our database identifying the species or individual animal that made the print,” explained Alibhai, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Duke’s Nicholas School. New data are then entered into WildTrack’s digital world map, which is used to track where endangered species live and how they are faring, he said. “This information ultimately helps inform conservation and anti-poaching strategies.”

WildTrack is a conservation nonprofit based in North Carolina. It advances and applies Jewell and Alibai’s non-invasive approach to wildlife monitoring using traditional ecological knowledge combined with leading-edge technologies from partners JMP software, senseFly and Skydio drones, Microsoft, and the Army Research Office. It currently is helping monitor dozens of endangered species worldwide, including Amur tigers in China, mountain lions in the Americas, Eurasian otters in Europe, Bengal tigers in India and Black rhinos in Namibia.

The decision to select Earth Day as the launch date for the new Wildtrack Specialist Group of conservation biologists who are committed to non-invasive monitoring just made sense, Jewell said. “We’re a group of more than 20 independent conservation professionals from around the world, bound together by a common desire to work towards more democratized and animal-friendly methods in wildlife monitoring. Earth Day seemed like a fitting date for our kick-off.”

Adds Alibhai, “Each member of our group has different and unique challenges in helping endangered species. Some are combating poaching, others human-wildlife conflict. Some are pioneering baseline data collection for conservation. We’re all motivated by the need to improve our relationship with the natural world.”