Tech in Conservation: Too Much Data or Lifeline?

In the face of climate change and population boom, stepping up conservation efforts around the world has never been more important or difficult.

Things could be made easier by taking full advantage of the technological innovations available to conservationists, a glimmer of hope that could be a game changer for conservationists.

Or it could further complicate things if the data isn’t interpreted accurately, to the detriment of those living through real wildlife crises.

These were the views expressed during the Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation webinar, which discussed whether technology could transform conservation in Africa.

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real-time data

Map-based platforms like EarthRanger, a software innovation from the Allen Institute for AI that collects information from multiple sources, are free and particularly useful for conservation organizations.

So far it has been adopted by over 300 websites in more than 45 countries.

It enables patrol management, wildlife monitoring, ecological management, remote monitoring through satellite imagery and collaboration with other organizations, among other things.

The Kenya Wildlife Trust (KWT), for example, has taken full advantage of EarthRanger by allowing it to lead its predator conservation program.

KWT Managing Director Irene Amoke explained that in the conflict between predators and humans in the area, livestock were attacked by big cats and lions were gored, poisoned and killed in retaliation.

Encouraging coexistence using technology has enabled interventions such as camera traps, collars, and on-site data collection to gather real-time information about predators. Communities can then be informed and advised on where livestock is allowed to graze and when it needs to be secured.

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boots on the floor

But technology can also be an obstacle.

Matthew Child, Associate Director of Biodiversity Economy Projects at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), pointed out that Africa has a role to play in conserving a significant part of the world’s biodiversity while safeguarding livelihoods.

Although satellites can be in places where humans cannot, data can be misused and misinterpreted, further complicating the continent’s conservation efforts.

Child suggested technology should play a role as a “conversation starter” but cautioned against giving it the “final say”.

Not only is upskilling required for a large portion of the conservation community, but shoes remain an essential part of the field, Child explained.

Rather than trying to gather data that might already exist and create impressive dashboards that mean very little over the long term, a “bottom-up approach” might be best, he advised.

This approach involves going old school — interacting with people living in areas where wildlife conflict is rife, understanding tradeoffs, and considering socioeconomic factors.

From a conservation perspective, technology needs to have a built-in socio-environmental layer to enable better decision-making.

This, Child concluded, would be more useful to the common people who are most affected by the conservation issues we are trying to solve.

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Impermissible Emotions

Innovation is the most important aspect of relying on technology in conservation and this has been explained at length by Habitat XR producer Lebo Leitch.

Habitat XR uses augmented reality to tell immersive stories, playing on a concept researched by Stanford University called “telepresence”.

A pilot study conducted by researchers in 2019 used virtual reality (VR) presentations to simulate clinical simulations in nursing students.

Habitat XR uses this concept to virtually transport participants to parts of the world they may not be able to visit — from the Himalayas to the Amazon — to illicit emotional connections.

By building empathy, the conservation challenges presented during the presentations become personal and tempt the mind to force a physical response.

In doing so, the preservation of the planet and species has made a notable impact, particularly with organizations that reach out to them to raise funds for conservation efforts.

Some of these include the Marine Megafauna Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Diann Fossey Fund, all of which have been able to raise enough money to continue their work.

On a continent locked in a complicated relationship with urbanization and wildlife, the debate over whether technology is a gift or a curse could be a game-changer for the future of conservation.

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