Conservation in the digital age

Technology permeates every facet of our daily lives, and its effects are felt by virtually everyone on the planet. As the pace of the changes driven by technological innovation continues to accelerate, the challenge for the conservation movement is to channel these developments into positive outcomes for the world’s biodiversity.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has a long history of investing in innovation, and harnessing technology for conservation purposes is nothing new for us.

We have been deploying camera traps, for example, and using remote sensing techniques to obtain data on threatened species and their habitats for decades.

Close up of collared cheetah. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

In 2003 we joined forces with Vodafone to launch the very first conservation-related mobile phone fundraising platform. The following year, our research into how technologies could be used effectively for the combined benefit of disadvantaged communities and biodiversity led to the creation of an online library of technology-related information for the conservation practitioner.

The range of conservation tools at our disposal continues to grow exponentially, and today we are embracing technology on many more fronts, particularly through strategic collaborations that link innovators and entrepreneurs with conservation and development practitioners and those living closest to the biodiversity we strive to protect.

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Connecting conservationists with technology experts

In 2013, FFI took the first pioneering steps toward the world’s first technology-focused interactive hub for promoting the protection of threatened species and ecosystems. The idea was to encourage sharing of ideas about how technology can be used for conservation through an open-access online platform owned and run jointly by a global community of conservationists, technologists and entrepreneurs.

This initiative led to a groundbreaking collaboration between United for Wildlife (of which FFI is a founding partner), Arm and Google, which in turn paved the way for the launch of WILDLABS.NET in 2015.

Since its launch, WILDLABS has grown into a vibrant online community, and in 2017 we announced an exciting new chapter in this story, with the creation of Ol Pejeta Labs in Kenya, where many of the innovative ideas for technology-enabled conservation developed through WILDLABS can be tested and developed in the field.

Getting smarter with technology

Another example of FFI’s use of technology to address practical conservation problems is our deployment of Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART). This combines GPS technology with software for measuring, evaluating and improving the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement patrols and site-based conservation activities. In Cambodia, we are working with the government’s Fisheries Administration department and community fisheries teams to deploy SMART within a marine protected area around the Koh Rong Archipelago, the first marine site in Southeast Asia to fully embrace its use. This has enabled partners to record and analyse patrol data, identify hotspots of illegal activity and patrol activity, and use this information to make more effective management decisions.

Developing and utilising cutting-edge technology

When used with care, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) now offer safe, flexible and affordable solutions to some of conservation’s trickiest technical challenges. In Aceh, Indonesia, where FFI has been working since 1998 to safeguard elephants and the communities living side by side with them, Conservation Response Units are minimising human-wildlife conflict with the help of quadcopter drones, which monitor Sumatran elephant movements across vast, inaccessible landscapes and provide an airborne early-warning system when elephants are approaching community farms.

In 2016, with the aid of drones and 3D technology, we began mapping the relatively poorly known forests on the tiny volcanic island of Príncipe, which harbours remarkably rich biodiversity including many endemic species.

FFI staff in Vietnam also helped to develop a new open-source, web-based tool, Camelot, that promises to revolutionise the management of large volumes of camera trap data by bridging the perceived technology gap between photo capture and statistical analysis of the results.

Engaging people through gaming

As well as contributing to results in the field, technology can also play a crucial role in raising conservation awareness among the wider public and generating online support for our work.

Back in 2003, we partnered with Vodafone to develop conservation-related mobile phone games such as Silverback, which simulated the threats facing mountain gorillas in the wild and received glowing reviews in the specialist press.

More recently, the United for Wildlife collaboration has helped to raise awareness about a variety of conservation issues by partnering with game creators. In Runescape, for example, players learnt about the plight of the rhino by answering a series of conservation questions in order to unlock a white rhino character. Two young conservationists supported by FFI were immortalised in the game after having their voices recorded for use as special in-game characters.

We also benefit from the support of Humble Bundle, an online store that sells books and games at a price determined by the purchaser, with a portion of the money donated to FFI.

FFI is mindful of the potential social and ethical implications of technology. We are committed to playing our part consciously, deliberately and wisely by influencing both the way in which these tools are applied and the development of the regulatory frameworks that can enable them to flourish.

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