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Harnessing technology

Technology and wildlife: two things that we don’t often associate with one another. Indeed, throughout history they’ve often been in opposition; human beings’ technological innovations so often fuelled by or contributing to the destruction of nature. 

But at WILDLABS – a partnership including Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Conservation International (CI), WCS, WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) – we want to transform how we think about tech and wildlife conservation. WILDLABS is the central hub for conservation technology online, connecting more than 5,000 conservationists, researchers, field biologists, engineers, developers, makers and conservation technology experts from around the world. Everyday, our community uses technology in the field to further their wildlife conservation goals.

Which technologies are used to protect wildlife?

Examples of conservation technology include some of the more established items and techniques such as: 

  • Camera traps
  • Tracking tags
  • Satellite remote sensing
  • Acoustic sensors
  • Drones

But we are also seeing more and more conservationists using innovative devices and techniques such as:

  • Computer facial recognition 
  • Data management tools
  • Biologger tags
  • Networked sensors 
  • Environmental DNA (eDNA)
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence
drone conservation

Credit: Marianne Teoh/FFI

Which of these technologies could be most important for the protection of wildlife?

As this is a new and emerging field, we needed more evidence to understand how and why experts are using new technologies and which carry the most promise for the future. 

To fill the gap in our knowledge, WILDLABS has produced a first-of-its-kind report assessing the current field of conservation technology and various tools’ ability to diagnose, understand and address the most critical environmental challenges. 

The report – A Global Community-Sourced Assessment of the State of Conservation Technology,  published today in Conservation Biology – contains the findings of a survey of 248 conservationists and technologists across 37 countries about the tools currently being used in the field to protect wildlife. 

The research, backed by Arm and Microsoft, has identified the top three tech innovations seen as potential ‘game changers’ for advancing conservation goals. More than 90% of respondents rated each of the top three emerging technologies as ‘very helpful’ or ‘game changers’. Although these three technologies ranked among the lowest when it came to current overall performance, their promising trajectories show their substantial room for and likelihood of further development, potentially making them areas ripe for investment and exploration.

They are: 

  • Artificial intelligence (AI), specifically machine learning and computer vision
  • Environmental DNA (eDNA) and genomics
  • Networked sensors 

How can AI help to protect wildlife?

What is ‘conservation technology’? How tech solutions can protect the world’s wildlife

Thermal cameras are able to find and monitor endangered animals automatically. Machine learning can tell species apart from their unique thermal shapes. Credit: Dr Claire Burke, @CBurkeSci

Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being used in the field to analyse information collected by wildlife conservationists, from camera trap and satellite images to audio recordings. AI can learn how to identify which photos out of thousands contain rare species; or pinpoint an animal call out of hours of field recordings – hugely reducing the manual labour required to collect vital conservation data.

What is eDNA and how can it contribute to conservation efforts?

What is ‘conservation technology’? How tech solutions can protect the world’s wildlife 3

Environmental DNA (eDNA) collected from snow tracks is useful for identification of mammalian species, including Japanese martens. Credit: iNaturalist

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is being used by pioneering conservationists to collect a wealth of biodiversity data quickly and easily, simply by scanning samples of water or soil. Traces of animal DNA can reveal the presence of previously unobserved species in a local area. A few small samples can contain the DNA of dozens of species and give a detailed snapshot of an ecosystem quickly and efficiently, data that can be used to make the case for greater protections for an area.

What are networked sensors and how do they help conservationists in the field?

bioacoustics conservation technology

A trained raptor carries custom bioacoustics and video equipment as it flies through swarms of bats to better understand echolocation. Credit: Laura Kloepper, Ph.D. @ProfLKloepper

Networked sensors allow camera traps, acoustic recorders, tracking devices and other conservation hardware to connect online, forming a comprehensive picture of animal movements and behaviour, becoming the ‘eyes and ears’ of conservationists and local communities, enabling monitoring, tracking and instant alerts about imminent threats.

How can we scale up conservation technology?

Protecting and restoring nature is the most pressing task facing humanity this century – and this research is further evidence of the huge contribution that technology has to play. Innovations in areas like DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence are allowing us to understand the natural world and conserve wildlife in new, more efficient and often more effective ways, safeguarding species from extinction.

Now we need governments, philanthropists and the private sector – including the tech giants – to put their weight behind the technological revolution in conservation with support and funding for conservationists worldwide to use technology to protect wildlife. 

What can conservationists in the field do to help?

We want the State of Conservation Technology to be a report that we review annually, so that we can build a longitudinal dataset about the use of technology in the field. So we call on all conservationists using tech to support their work to take part in this year’s survey and help us to understand how you are putting technology to work protecting the world’s wildlife.