Lions, get ready for your close up. A new database stocked with lion photos could be key to understanding and protecting the African species. 

The Lion Identification Network of Collaborators (LINC) is a crowdfunded project from Lion Guardians, a Kenya-based conservation organization [PDF]. Using facial recognition software and images of the profiles of individual lions, LINC is helping researchers monitor population levels and where different lions travel in their migrations. 

Lions don’t have big, identifiable marks like cheetahs or leopards that allow researchers to easily tell them apart, so they’re harder to track and monitor over time. Identifying a lion involves taking a high-quality photo of it and zooming in on small zones like whisker spots, but a computer can do that much more effectively than a human. 

Being able to tell individual lions apart can help conservationists keep tabs on them without having to resort to GPS trackers, which must be attached to a sedated lion’s body and which run out of batteries after a few years. Mapping out lion migration patterns and determining where they eat, drink, and mate can help conservationists address how human encroachment will affect the endangered animals. 

[h/t: Scientific American via Smithsonian]