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  • On April 13, 2015

The internet of all things is here. Today there is nothing you cannot do with the internet, and very little that you can do without it. In this piece, we look at an often-ignored angle to the internet: how it is changing the lives of animals.

At the Digital Animals conference that happened in New York University on 20 February, 2015, much of the discussion revolved around a particular incident of a shark that was killed because tagging data showed that it often spent an inordinate amount of time near a popular swimming area.
Tagging animals such as sharks and rhinos has been in vogue ever since we’d begun to study animals closely. But now, since the tags reveal information about the animal’s whereabouts, the question has arisen as to whether we should use that data for anything other than pure research.
Even though there have been no physical sightings of the aforementioned shark, based purely on tagging data, the shark was killed because it was thought it posed a risk to swimmers. Some sections of the scientific community think that it’s not fair to tag an animal for research, and then use the data from the tag as a means of control and punishment.
The news is not all bad, though, because over in Africa, a company called Air Shepherd is employing drones and tagging data in combination to protect rhinos from poachers. A continuous stream of geographical data, LIDAR scans and the movements of animals and poachers are fed into a supercomputer by Air Shepherd’s team back at the University of Maryland. Predictive models are then used to direct a relatively small fleet of drones to the right places at the right times.
On average, 1200 rhinos are slaughtered by poachers in Africa every year. Ever since Air Shepherd has taken to the skies, though, in October 2014, not one has been killed in areas that are monitored by the flying drones.
Social media is changing the way we look at animals, some scientists said at the conference. Today, social media posts about cute, exotic animals has made the demand for them as pets much higher than it used to be, and coupled with websites and companies that provide such pets to ill-equipped owners, and the recipe for disaster is complete. Now there are more tigers in domestic captivity, for instance, in the US than there are in the wild.
So we must all ask ourselves how the internet is changing not just our lives, but also those of animals.

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