Cheorwon (DMZ), South Korea

Choi Myung-Ae, Center for Anthropocene Studies, Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST)

On the Korean peninsula lies an accidental paradise: When the Korean War ended in 1953, a four-kilometre-wide, 248-kilometre-long Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) was established between North and South Korea. Since then, the DMZ has been a no-man’s land. With few exceptions, it has remained untouched by humans for the last 70 years and has instead been taken over by non-human beings: Animals and plants were able to develop freely in it, and today 91 endangered species live there. Two of these species are the Red-crowned (Grus japonensis) and the White-naped crane (Grus vipio), which Myung-Ae Choi and her team at the Centre for Anthropocene Studies at KAIST are studying with the help of wildlife cameras.

The cranes spend the summer in Siberia, which is why they are not visible on the camera footage during this time. Only in November do they start to appear: Then they migrate to the wetlands of the DMZ, which offer safe resting places, and to the rice fields in the surrounding areas, where they find food. Unlike us humans, they can easily fly over the fortified lines between North and South Korea.

Cranes are cherished in Korea, as they symbolise good luck and a long life. In 1968, the Red-crowned crane and the White-naped crane were declared natural monuments, and since 2011 they have been protected under the Wildlife Protection and Management Act. This is essential, as in the course of the 20th century many of these birds were lost through colonial hunting, urbanisation and the Korean War. Today, there are an estimated 2,000 to 2,650 Red-crowned cranes and 3,700 to 4,500 White-naped cranes worldwide.

Conservation efforts in and around the DMZ started in the late 1980s and in 2004, the Korean Ministry of Environment introduced a payment for ecosystem services scheme throughout the region, subsidising farmers who engage in conservation activities such as leaving rice stocks in their fields after harvest. These efforts have paid off: While only a few hundred cranes wintered in the DMZ in the 1990s, several thousand birds live there today. This makes the DMZ one of the most important wintering areas for cranes.

Nevertheless, they are not completely without danger there either: Border controls are loosening, roads, greenhouses and other infrastructure are being built, the climate is changing. Possibilities to monitor the cranes ecologically are quite limited, not least because of the remaining landmines in the DMZ.

Ecologists are still not allowed to enter the DMZ, but they can monitor it with the help of cameras. This is also the case with Myung-Ae Choi and her team: the camera trap from Triggered by Motion is one of 13 cameras with remote monitoring that were set up in 2020. To meet security requirements, they are all located outside the DMZ, in rice fields or – like Triggered by Motion‘s camera – on the banks of the Hantan River. There they collect hundreds of hours of footage every year. Instead of having to painstakingly analyse all these images by hand, as has been the case up to now, a self-learning algorithm will soon be able to automatically identify crane species and sort out the data. Another AI is already applied to count the number of the cranes respective to their species.

With their research, Myung-Ae Choi and her team want to demonstrate the importance of the protection of wetlands and rice fields as conservation areas for the endangered cranes of the DMZ. Myung-Ae Choi believes conservation technology such as AI or remote-sensing devices could play an important role in this effort – especially in locations such as the DMZ where human access has been limited. Projects such as Triggered by Motion, she says, offer exciting opportunities to explore the frontier technologies in practice.