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"Pigs are smart.  As soon as you start applying pressure on them, they start to adapt."

Trae Menard
Hawai'i Director of Forest Conservation

For the military, infrared imaging technology is old hat, but for conservation, it’s the hottest, newest thing.

“We can pick out a mongoose in the grass from a helicopter at 1,000 feet. We can detect animals like pigs and deer 10 miles away,” said Jake Muise, axis deer coordinator for the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.

Muise has been using forward-looking infrared imaging, or FLIR, for two years to control the axis deer population on the Big Island. It has been so useful a technology that it now plays a role in virtually all of the committee’s invasive animal work, he said.

The Nature Conservancy’s programs on Maui and Kauaʻi are using the infrared technology to identify pigs and deer in fenced preserves, and to identify feral animal intrusions into animal-free areas.

“The first time using it, it was a game-changer,” said Francis Quitazol, the Conservancy’s natural resource manager for Maui County.

Infrared devices, long a staple of military operations, pick up the heat differences between different objects.

At his Līhuʻe desk, Trae Menard, the Conservancy director of Forest Conservation, displays a color video of a pig moving in the Wainiha Valley Preserve on Kaua‘i, as recorded from a helicopter on one of the imaging devices. The shape of the pig, yellow with a red-orange outline, is running through the cooler undergrowth shown in blue and black.

The animal’s legs, body, head and snout clearly are distinguishable. “It looks like a fat pig,” Menard said.

These are just a few of the infrared devices in the hands of Island conservation teams, all of the units built by FLIR Systems, Inc., a NASDAQ-listed defense contractor based in Oregon. And as good as the systems are, they employ a technology a decade or more older than what the military currently uses.

“We first looked at this technology 10 years ago, but at that time it wasn’t good enough to see a pig through a dense, wet forest. Two years ago, as some of the military technology started going commercial, we were able to see images we had never been able to see with the naked eye,” Menard said.

The best time to use the infrared devices are when it’s cool out—at night or early in the morning. Most helicopter monitoring is done between dawn and about 10 a.m. After that, the sun warms the vegetation and it is difficult to pick out a mammal’s body heat.
“They lose efficiency when you get too much reflective heat from the canopy,” Quitazol said.

In addition to daytime helicopter work, Muise and his team do night surveys on the ground, either walking transects through the forest or viewing long distances from selected vantage points.

Menard said FLIR technology is particularly useful for identifying the last few animals in an area.

“We’re pretty good at getting about 85 percent of the population, but that last 10 to 15 percent is tough. Pigs are smart. As soon as you start applying pressure on them, they start to adapt. We end up spending 80 percent of our resources controlling that last 10 percent," he said.

The FLIR systems look like high-tech spotting scopes or binoculars, and can run from thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Conservation teams across Hawai‘i are developing their systems to most effectively use the new technology, but they are already convinced of their value.

“I think that the FLIR technology, in combination with our ground motion-sensing technology, is really going to enable us to catch those last few pigs in a fenced area, and keep it pig-free,” Menard said.