High-Tech Solutions for Preserving the Wild Horses

2021. September 06. - 09:37 In the area of Hortobágy, artificial intelligence is used for saving the endangered Asian wild horses. Researchers from the UD apply drones to examine the way of life of Przewalski’s horses living on the premises of Hortobágy National Park. The data received then processed with Microsoft’s Azure.

There are quite a few endangered animal species living in Hungary; perhaps the best known of them is the great bustard, the bird in the emblem of Magyar Madártani és Természetvédelmi Egyesület [MME Birdlife Hungary]. Unbeknownst to most, Hungary is also home to the biggest population of wild horses in the world. Hortobágyi Nemzeti Park contains a natural preserve area at Pentezug, which is not accessible for visitors and is the habitat of 300 Przewalski’s horses, a breed of which there are altogether around 2000 in the entire world. These wild horses, which had frequently been the models for prehistoric cave drawings, were present in huge numbers centuries ago primarily in Asia, in the steppe regions of present-day China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. However, there have also been bone findings of Przewalski’s horses recovered even in certain parts of France as well. Nevertheless, as nomadic tribes used to exterminate this species without mercy, their last specimen at large was seen in Asia in 1968.

These days, it is to their original habitat, i.e. Mongolia, that the wild horses are getting relocated from Hungary. This development is possible thanks to the successful domestic breeding program of several years. Between 1997 and 2001, there were only 22 founders arriving in Hortobágy, whereas today, there are approximately 30 harem groups of various sizes, which seem to gradually saturate the reservation area of 3000 hectares. A considerable part in this success has been played by the cloud technology based on artificial intelligence, which was originally provided by Microsoft for the conservationists and researchers to use. Hortobágyi Nemzeti Park, the Department of Evolutionary Zoology and Human Biology of the Faculty of Science and Technology of the University of Debrecen, and Microsoft joined their efforts three years ago, in 2018, for the first time to save the wild horses.

The thing is that it was at the University of Debrecen that one of the Artificial Intelligence Knowledge Centers in Hungary was established, where the most recent technological know-how and the appropriate software background are concentrated in the interest of making it possible for students and their professional mentors to implement unique research projects. Artificial Intelligence Knowledge Centers also contribute to the efforts that facilitate the organic inclusion of digitalization into Hungarian higher education, thus providing the upcoming generations with an even more competitive knowledge base in virtually all the fields.

For the behavior ecological research of wild horses, the researchers have used drones in the national park, through which it is possible to overview large areas without actually disturbing the animals. The hi-res drone videos taken of the herds, which are easy to magnify and to view in slow motion, are then processed with the help of artificial intelligence provided by Microsoft, making it possible to separate the horses from the cattle and uruses/aurochs that are also present in the same area. At present, the software developers are already working on how to use technology to identify the individual horses that are very similar to one another on the basis of their color and other distinctive features.

This work would take months if it had to be completed by the students themselves, while they would also inadvertently influence the behavior of the horses, and thus, the overall research as well. With the help of the artificial intelligence though they can distinguish the horses from the cattle in motion in a matter of minutes or even in real time in order to monitor and analyze their behavior amongst natural conditions. For the processing of the huge amount of data, Microsoft Azure provides the computing power, which allows the researchers to run the 4K videos and the results of the analysis on several computers at the same time.
“This project is important and significant not only because it helps save an endangered species but also because it is a marvelous opportunity for us to demonstrate how in Hungary we can combine the efforts of environmental conservationists with those of the community of users and developers of artificial intelligence. Their cooperation then facilitates the establishment of a totally new combination, which assists the protection of the environment even further,” said Professor Zoltán Barta, head of the Department of Evolutionary Zoology and Human Biology of the Faculty of Science and Technology of the University of Debrecen.

By acquiring the relevant experience and research findings, the experts working in Debrecen are going to be able to advise their colleagues who are trying to reintroduce Przewalski’s horses at other locations. What is more, according to the current plans, the method supported with Microsoft’s technology is also going to be put into practice in Mongolia, in areas exceeding one million hectares, too.

“WE can save a lot of time by applying artificial intelligence, and we are also able to complete our work in the project much more effectively,” said Viola Kerekes. The coordinator of Hortobágyi Nemzeti Park project also added the following: nature conservationists like this system very much because it contributes to the process of reintroducing a species to areas where it had become extinct before and now it can be reinstated to its original habitat with the help of humans.

In addition to the one at the University of Debrecen, AI Knowledge Centers are currently operating at Budapesti Gazdasági Egyetem [Budapest Business School], at the University of Pécs, and at five other universities in Hungary (OE, SZIE, SZE, ELTE, BME), where the most diverse academic projects are implemented with support coming from the most recent state-of-the-art technology.

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