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How Technology Can Support Wildlife Conservation and Help Protect the Future of Our Natural World

24/05/2016 17:04 | Updated 24 May 2016

tech-for-good

As global wildlife populations have declined by 52% in just 40 years, our planet needs all the help it can get in turning this terrible decline around and ensuring wildlife is conserved for generations to come.

The threats are serious, and many: habitat destruction, climate change, illegal wildlife trade, to name just a few. But advances in technology can give conservationists the edge, meaning the difference between survival and extinction of some of the world's most threatened species.

As an international conservation charity, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is working to develop technological tools that can enable us (and other conservationists around the world) to better understand animals, their habitats and the threats they face so we can protect our precious wildlife.

From satellite-enabled cameras, to new software for the reporting of illegal wildlife trade, technology can help protect the future of our natural world. 

Camera trapping

Studying animals in the wild is an incredible privilege, but it can also mean sitting around for hours hoping for a glimpse of an elusive species. Wildlife camera traps are a clever way of monitoring animals in the wild without the numb bum!

It's a simple and clever solution; a camera is left at a location (perhaps a watering hole or place of known animal activity) and set up so that any approaching wild animal will automatically trigger it to take a photo or video, without the need for a photographer being present. 

Because understanding the behaviour and movement of animals in the wild is key in trying to understand their risk of extinction, camera trapping is an essential tool for conservation organisations like ZSL, allowing us to collect large amounts of data. Modern batteries allow these devices to operate unsupervised night and day in remote locations for months at a time. The latest camera-traps are also increasingly able to transmit images to conservationist on other continents via satellite, addressing the issue of patchy mobile phone networks in many remote regions.

At ZSL we use camera traps to monitor species in all kinds of habitats - from penguins in the frozen Antarctic, to Amur tigers in the far east of Russia and pygmy hippos in the dense forests of West Africa.

Bringing wildlife to you

We created the Instant Wild app to bring amazing camera trap photos of wildlife to the wider public, letting people see the amazing wildlife we're monitoring, and helping budding 'citizen scientists' to get involved in our work more closely.

Anyone with an iPhone or iPad (we're working on a version for Android) can download the free app and get incredible live wildlife images sent directly to you. We encourage app users to try and identify the animals in the photos (from our Kenya cameras, for example, it might be iconic species such as giraffes, zebras and rhinos), saving our conservationists thousands of hours and making analysis of the data so much speedier.

Tech to tackle poaching

ZSL's Conservation Technology Unit has used funding from the Google Global Impact Award which we won in 2013 to build a multi-sensor alarm system to help tackle illegal wildlife poaching.

The system uses satellite technology to send captured camera trap images or metal detector alerts in real-time from virtually anywhere in the world. This has huge implications for the fight against poaching of endangered species, and is being used by rangers to alert them to illegal activity happening in their protected areas, so that they can quickly respond to threats to wildlife.

In addition, because images are sent via satellite, it can be used in extremely remote locations, as it doesn't rely on someone to physically collect the camera memory cards, or on being able to transmit data over (often unreliable) mobile networks. The technology has been rolled out to seven sites globally and been selected as a Nominet Trust 100 Tech for Good winner.

Getting SMART about conservation

Protected areas around the world are also heavily dependent on highly skilled and dedicated guards, rangers and managers. As well as monitoring wildlife, rangers patrol their land looking for warning signs - a sick animal that could be the start of a devastating disease outbreak, a poacher camp that warns that animals are under threat. What they spot on their patrols, and even the paths that they have walked, can yield very useful data if collected and analysed effectively.

SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) was developed by ZSL and other leading conservation organisations to give rangers and wildlife managers the ability to facilitate and
standardise the collection, analysis and reporting of this highly useful data.

GPS units are used to track rangers' movements and can pinpoint the coordinates of notable or illegal activity. Data is standardised and can be used to create maps and other records of things like ranger patrol coverage, or illegal activity hotspots, which help managers decide on the appropriate actions to take, and how to prioritise limited financial or staffing resources, and track changes in activity over time.

SMART is open-source software, free and available in an ever-expanding number of languages, to allow more people to take advantage of the technology.

The SMART approach has now been implemented in over 140 sites across 31 countries, helping to protect iconic species like Asiatic lions and African elephants.

Tiny tags, big impact

Scientists from ZSL's academic faculty, the Institute of Zoology, have also developed MATAKI, a tracking technology that can record the movement and behaviour of animals in the wild and transmit that information to other devices in the field.

They are small, lightweight, low cost and open source, enabling conservationists and wildlife managers to use these in a variety of projects around the world.

Our teams have used these tags to monitor the behaviour of a number of species including seabirds, marine turtles, and some recent trials on tigers and sloths. The instant transfer of data means that the teams did not need to keep recapturing animals to access the information, which is not ideal for the animals, or the conservationists battling with complex field conditions.

ZSL's Institute of Zoology and our Conservation Technology Unit are continuing to develop these cutting edge technologies to find new ways of understanding how animal movement and behaviour are responding to an increasing range of threats.

If you want to support ZSL's conservation technology work, you can become a Wildlife Champion and help us continue to work for wildlife.To find out more about how we're using conservation technology and developing our own, please visit www.zsl.org/conservationtechnology.

HuffPost UK Tech is running a two-week focus on our Tech For Good campaign, which aims to highlight the technology that is driving social change and making a positive, long-lasting difference to our world. If you'd like to blog on our platform around this topic, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about.

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