How we can use technology to preserve biodiversity
You can try to hide your body, but you can’t hide your footprints. That's where data collection and technology can help.
Most of us live in a cosseted unreality, cocooned inside thermo-regulated cars and buildings. Our food and drink is on tap, and we experience little inconvenience beyond death and taxes.
It’s easy to forget that life as we know it would come to an abrupt halt without the millions of other species on earth toiling away behind the scenes, to provide our fresh air, water, soil, medicine and the contents of our fridges.
Given this, one might think we’d have been super-careful to balance the exploitation of our home planet to ensure a place for this biodiversity.
Yet evidence shows that we’re driving other species to extinction at rates 100 to 1,000 times the natural "background" rates (that is, the standard rate of extinction in earth’s history before humans became a primary contributor to extinctions).
So what’s to be done?
We need a more complete understanding of the factors that threaten endangered species and the resources that they need to survive. This is still woefully incomplete, even for some of the best-studied species.
Our paper Emerging Technologies to Conserve Biodiversity just published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution examines the role that new technologies might play in redressing the balance – from ever-smaller individual tracking devices to a future of completely non-invasive approaches, such as sophisticated camera traps, spying on nature with high-resolution satellites and the deployment of drones.
But technology alone will not resolve the challenges we face, and our resources are limited.
The bigger question is this: How do we deploy technology to maximum effect? In our paper, we consider issues that require priority attention if technologies are going to achieve full potential, including the application of technology for critical issues, such as the illegal trade in wildlife, and building a much wider engagement of citizen scientists and tourists to help gather data. These groups, previously disenfranchised from conservation, could exponentially increase our knowledge through wider data collection.
WildTrack transferring technology from the lab to the field: Field biologists from Southern Africa, Brazil, Australia, the UK and the USA gather in Namibia to learn how to image footprints.
The challenges of more data
Unprecedented volumes of data bring new challenges. This might be where we can learn from the corporate world. Companies such as SAS have considerable expertise in big data management and visualization across sectors.
We can employ algorithms to select data that matter. Data collection becomes quicker and easier as computational power increases and hardware size decreases. Our ability to predict outcomes improves with new probabilistic models.
It turns out that many potential solutions are synergies of components from disciplines outside conservation biology, such as engineering, statistics, mathematics, other sciences and business.
WildTrack and NCSU Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering are collaborating on a project to develop mobile and stationary UAV networks for conservation monitoring.
A last twist to this tale
New technologies have allowed us to quantify conservation value where we least expected it – in ancient techniques that developed as we humans evolved. For the last few decades, we’ve embraced invasive, bulky and costly tags and collars as state-of-the-art tools for monitoring endangered species.
Now with advances in digital imaging and statistical modeling, we’re able to distill the millennia-old art of animal tracking into a new technology for identifying species, individuals, sex and age-class from footprints: the footprint identification technique (FIT) using JMP software from SAS.
FIT in JMP for the Amur tiger: Using FIT, we were able to do the first small-scale footprint census of free-ranging Amur tigers in North East China.
FIT is an apt symbol of the revolution we need to effect. We must put together the big picture from the individual pieces of technology. We can foster global participation across cultures and disciplines, to create brave new combinations of tried and trusted tradition, with inspired innovation.
Until then, the bushmen, with their time-honored skills, might just have the last laugh.
Editor's note: A version of this blog post first appeared in SAS Voices.