By Antony Lynam and David Marvin
December 12, 2016
Ecologists and conservation practitioners face unprecedented daily challenges today in saving wildlife from poaching, over-harvest, and displacement. At the same time, they are working harder than ever to protect the habitats in which those species live from loss, encroachment, and degradation while ensuring local communities have access to resources for healthy and secure livelihoods.
Conservation typically operates on meager budgets and the bulk of the work, in developing countries, is funded by conservation agencies and private donors. Every dollar spent is precious. That is why the conservation community is now increasingly facing up to the reality that it must adopt innovative, appropriate technology at scale — to extend local successes to the scope of the challenge ahead of us.
In a recent publication in the leading journal Global Ecology and Conservation, we and our colleagues reviewed a wide range of innovative technologies and how they can be combined to improve the scale and dimensions over which threats to wildlife and wildlands and other pressing conservation problems can be addressed.
Take remote-sensing technologies like Earth-observing government satellites. These now produce freely available information for monitoring forest cover change. The sensors carried on these orbiting platforms can help us better understand a variety of phenomena — from forest dynamics and biomass, to climate and weather, to variables like surface temperature, soil moisture, and fluxes of carbon dioxide across the Earth’s surface.
Unmanned aircraft systems (commonly known as drones) are likewise being deployed to monitor both individuals and groups of animals. Drones produce such high-resolution images that conservationists can monitor animal feeding, nesting, and other behavior in the forest canopy or on the ground. Drones can contribute to long-term studies of forest regeneration and endangered wildlife like primates, elephants, or marine turtles. Drones even provide a potential low-cost monitoring of illegal human activity like poaching in protected areas.
Not all technologies are flying through space or in the air. Wildlife enthusiasts have used ground-deployed technologies such as camera-traps for well over a century. The latest infrared models are less invasive, resulting in more accurate records of animal behavior and movement than previous flash-based models. Infrared camera-traps can record thousands of images over 4–6 weeks of deployment before needing replacement.
Connecting camera-traps to cellular networks turns these devices into permanently deployed sentries for monitoring poaching and other illegal activity. Wireless sensor networks consisting of small, independent microphones and other sensors can detect gunshots and chainsaws, creating virtual fences that when penetrated enable conservationists to monitor intrusions and expand the reach of law enforcement in protected areas.
Mobile devices and apps can help improve the speed and accuracy of data collection by field teams. For example, the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) helps protected-area managers take control of their human and physical resources to better direct wildlife protection efforts and enhance anti-poaching capacity. Under the system, observations of human activity and wildlife made by ranger teams are recorded on handheld devices loaded with an electronic form.
After a patrol is completed, the data collected in the field is brought to a central location such as park headquarters, where it is analyzed and reported to the manager. The resulting information on wildlife distributions, threat hotspots, and ranger movements allows for better planning and decision making. Imagery from fire detection satellites can supplement ranger-based data from SMART to help guide deployment of ranger patrols.
Integrating and deploying technologies in the field does not come without trade-offs and challenges. Most high-resolution satellite imagery is only available through expensive commercial purchase. Conservation drones built to be lightweight and cheap have flight times of three hours and can manage distances of just 100km.
Camera-trap batteries can run for 4–6 weeks only. The lack of access to reliable power sources reduces the operability of sensor networks and other devices in remote areas. Rather than forgo technology deployment, conservation and research project managers should plan on adapting to local conditions and using innovative workarounds.
Even with the rapid advance and deployment of technology, traditional ground surveys and assessments may still be required for rare species identification, soil and leaf chemical profiling, and microbial and genetic sampling.
Many of the technologies we have described here have yet to receive testing across the full-range of field situations; even fewer have robust business strategies behind them to ensure they deliver a reliable, scalable solutions that provide the long term value critical to conservation.
Never before has there been such a need to blend the skills of motivated, skilled, and — most of all — patient conservation practitioners with those who create great technology and understand how to leverage it at scale for maximum impact. And all this can only be achieved with greater public and private investment to accelerate the adoption of technology.
If the goal is to sustain critical natural resources supporting both wildlife and local people, it’s an investment with great potential rewards on our increasingly crowded planet.
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Dr. Antony J. Lynam is a conservation scientist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He is Chair of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), Asia-Pacific Chapter, and Board Member of the Society for Conservation Biology, Asia Section. David Marvin is Climate Change Ecologist for the California Program of the The Nature Conservancy and a Visiting Investigator in the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science