Snow Leopard Trust receives AI for Earth grant from Microsoft

Seattle, WA - The Snow Leopard Trust has been awarded an AI for Earth grant from Microsoft to advance the use of remote cameras for estimating the population size and location hotspots of the elusive, endangered snow leopard.

Using remote cameras, the Snow Leopard Trust has captured more than 1.3 million images and ongoing and planned camera trapping efforts will add another 500,000 images each year.

Since the cameras are triggered by any type of movement, they often take images of goats, sheep, birds, blowing leaves of grass, etc.  Only about 5 percent of the pictures actually contain a snow leopard, and often it’s hard to recognize a shape for what it is. Manually reviewing each digital file to find the images that contain a snow leopard can take thousands of hours of staff time.

The tail end of a snow leopard encounter, captured by a camera trap in India. The AI software teaches itself to recognize the shape and pattern and tag the photo accordingly. Photo by NCF India / HPFD / Snow Leopard Trust

To solve this resource challenge, the Trust and Microsoft have employed deep learning, a technique that uses what engineers have called “brainlike algorithms” that learn – and then teach themselves – to sort through the photos automatically.

Using these algorithms, Microsoft engineers have created a scalable image recognition program that is already nearly 95 percent accurate in identifying snow leopards in camera trap photos.

The team additionally created a live dashboard that highlights snow leopard hot spots where the cats particularly like visiting and leaving marks.

Among other information, the dashboard shows where “hot spots” are, and how many snow leopard encounters a data set contains. Photo by Microsoft

“This is a huge step forward for us, but the work does not end here”, says Rhetick Sengupta, president of the Snow Leopard Trust’s board of directors and a principal program manager at Microsoft. “The next challenge will be for the image recognition program to learn to identify and distinguish between individual snow leopards based on their fur patterns, which is the basis for coming population estimates and monitoring. Currently, this is done manually, by researchers and volunteers. Automating this second step of the process will not only save an enormous amount of time and resources, but will also make estimates more reliable.”

Camera trap photos are the backbone of most population studies and monitoring efforts – but sorting through the images requires a lot of manpower. Photo by NCF India / HPFD / Snow Leopard Trust

Before the AI for Earth grant, Microsoft engineers had been working on the project pro bono. The $15,000 grant will now allow both partners to expand the work.

The snow leopards’ habitat spans 12 countries and covers an area that’s more than twice the size of the state of Texas. According to latest estimates, there are between 3,900-6,500 snow leopards in the wild.

However, these numbers are fraught with uncertainty. “It’s an undisputed fact that no one knows what the numbers are,” Rhetick Sengupta told GeekWire in a recent interview.

This uncertainty is not just an academic problem. There is a real danger that decisions about the animals’ protection are being made based on weak data. The type of tools Microsoft and the Snow Leopard Trust are developing under this AI for Earth grant could help change that.

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AI for Earth is a Microsoft program aimed at empowering people and organizations to solve global environmental challenges by increasing access to AI tools and educational opportunities, while accelerating innovation. AI for Earth provides Azure computing resources and AI tools to NGOs, academic institutions and research organizations that work on challenges in climate change, biodiversity, agriculture and water.

The Snow Leopard Trust is the world’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to the conservation of the endangered snow leopard. It joins a growing number of AI for Earth grantees worldwide recognized by Microsoft for the impact and potential.

4 Comments

  1. really glad to read this post about microsoft! thank god for the $15,000 grant…keep on truckin’ love what you are doing and love your letting us know detail of people, science, etc. you make e feel as if i am there with you!!!

    1. Saving Snow leopards has huge implications and ripples down to helping so many who live in an area leading hardscrabble but earnest lives. A worthwhile cause led by sincere people.

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