Kiambi, a large bull elephant, courting a female in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Kiambi is one of many elephants being tracked with real-time GPS collars, seen just behind his head.

Technology Keeps Conservation Going Amid the Pandemic

Guest Post By Nathan Han, 2020-2021 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Are you still able to do your research right now?

As a conservation biologist and PhD candidate working on an international research project, I have been asked this question countless times in the last year. While the pandemic has impacted my own research and those of my colleagues, the conservation community has been able to adapt quickly with new technologies to keep long-term monitoring and conservation activities alive.

Regular, long-term tracking of the environment, such as the abundance, composition, and activity of animals and plants, is critical for understanding change. It helps reveal the impacts of natural disturbance events, like wildfires, and human activities, such as poaching or land conversion. Travel restrictions and social distancing have forced scientists to cancel studies or pause their work for months, and threatened to end many long-term monitoring projects. These limits have created data gaps on issues ranging from bird migration to puma movements, and have even been found to measurably reduce the accuracy of weather forecasts. As NGOs pulled out of field projects and ecotourism came to a halt in 2020, experts worried that shutdowns would lead to the collapse of research and conservation projects, and unleash a spasm of illegal poaching, logging, mining and land invasions. While the impact of the pandemic has yet to be fully measured on the conservation sector, technology has played a pivotal role in helping researchers and organizations cope with the fallout.

In the last two decades, devices such as camera traps, GPS devices, and satellites have become an essential part of most research and conservation programs because they allow researchers to watch animals and monitor the environment over vast areas and with phenomenon that are difficult to observe. More recently, advances in real-time and remote sensing technologies have created new data streams that improve how we monitor and respond to environmental changes. While most of these technologies have been available for a long time, the pandemic pushed their rapid adoption, and in many cases led to new opportunities.

Take Sri Lanka’s Department of Forest Conservation. The department is responsible for monitoring 3.5 million acres of primary rainforest and shrubland rich with biodiversity, and until recently relied on a combination of routine patrolling, Google Earth, and reports from a network of community-based organizations. In March 2020, the entire country of Sri Lanka was placed under a two-month lockdown, providing an opportunity for illegal loggers to encroach on nature preserves while the department was shut down. To continue its forest protection efforts, the department turned to a platform called Global Forest Watch. The platform was built as a transparent tool to help keep tabs on illegal logging in the tropics and quickly detect encroachments by providing a user-friendly interface for GLAD deforestation alerts. Using satellite data taken every two weeks, computer processing is done to compare imagery over time and detect forest loss. According to Global Forest Watch, the department’s switch to the platform has become permanent as of July 2020.

GLAD deforestation alerts (in pink) helped track the creation of a logging road in Peru. Image credit: Global Forest Watch

But it’s not just large government programs that have had to shake up traditional approaches and long-held methodologies for data collection. In many cases, researchers have turned to new devices to keep long-term monitoring projects going and spawn new research. Web platforms for citizen science have also helped fill data gaps; a record number of contributors have helped scientists continue to collect data on everything from air quality to animal and plant abundance through the pandemic.

So are you still able to do your research?

In my own work, studying elephants and their response to agricultural expansion in the Masai Mara Kenya, I rely on a suite of similar technologies to collect data. GPS collars help us track individual elephants and observe their behaviors in crop fields and human settlements. Because this happens at night and ranges across an almost 40,000 sq km2 ecosystem, it can be difficult to impossible to see what they are doing. GPS data can easily pinpoint when, where, and how much time they spend traversing and navigating these dangerous areas. To detect poaching incidence, the collars were designed to transmit elephant locations in near real-time to a dashboard which flags when elephants stop moving. These features have allowed us to continue data collection uninterrupted during the pandemic.

An elephant is collared by the Mara Elephant Project in Kenya. Photo Credit: Mara Elephant Project

Another major component of the study is to look at the types of habitats (e.g. crops, grasslands, open woodlands, and forest) that are important for elephants, which requires making maps of the landcover. We regularly traverse the study area to collect data on vegetation types on the ground, which is them matched up with satellite imagery using machine learning to create landcover maps. With travel shut down, I turned to a survey app built to collect information during humanitarian crises so that my research partners in Kenya could continue collecting habitat information and easily sync it to create the landcover map.

Wilson Sairowua collects vegetation survey data using the KoboToolbox app in the Masai Mara, Kenya

My own experiences and those of fellow scientists have shown the value of investing in new technologies for conservation. Of course it also should be stressed that these approaches must be combined with strong community engagement to create successful conservation projects, as the dangers of technologies leading to exclusionary and ‘fortress conservation’ models are real. However, successfully combining conservation technologies with community programs can open up new opportunities to engage citizens in collaborative science and create more buy-in when a solution is found. For researchers and practitioners looking to learn more, you can read about what others are working on at Mongabay’s WildTech site, and get directly involved in the conversation by heading to WILDLABS.

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