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Light, long-lasting and low-cost: the technology needs of field conservationists and wildlife researchers

  • The concurrent challenges of remoteness, extreme temperatures, dust, high rainfall and humidity, dense vegetation and steep terrain all complicate and limit the use of existing and emerging technologies for nature conservation and research.
  • Survey responses of front-line conservationists suggest that no single technology will stop either wildlife poaching or human-wildlife conflict.
  • Researchers everywhere desire smaller, lighter, longer-lasting, and more affordable devices that better withstand humidity, dust and damage.
  • Integrated, automated devices and systems for detecting, monitoring, and providing early warning of movements of people and animals would revolutionize conservation and research work across species, ecosystems, and countries.

What challenges do wildlife managers and researchers face most frequently in the field? 

And what technology advances can help address them?

To help ensure wildtech.mongabay.com remains a useful tool for readers, we invited front-line conservationists and researchers, representing a range of institutions and field conditions, to fill out anonymous questionnaires, with a separate questionnaire for each group.  We asked them describe the challenges they face in their work, current means of addressing these challenges, capacities that could increase their effectiveness, and any game-changing technologies that would revolutionize their work.

We received responses from 44 front-line conservationists from 14 countries and from 50 wildlife biologists working in 37 countries on technology they use currently, problems they face with it, and how they would improve it.

Click here for a detailed report of the survey results.

Major conservation challenges

A. The Front-Line Conservationists (FLCs), from the non-profit and public sectors, work primarily on-site at protected areas or within government parks or wildlife departments, with a relative concentration of responses from South Asia and East Africa.

Most have multiple responsibilities, including controlling poaching and other crimes, maintaining community relations, mitigating human-wildlife conflict, surveying wildlife and their habitats, training staff or colleagues, analyzing data, raising funds or public awareness and managing a conservation area.

Nearly every FLC respondent said that wildlife poaching was a serious problem. Human-wildlife conflict (HWC), was identified as the second major challenge (60% of respondents), with habitat loss, encroachment and infrastructure development currently less urgent issues.

Poaching challenges:

Figure 1. Main locations of poaching occurrences, by percentage of respondents
Figure 2. Field capacities needed to better detect and arrest poachers, by percentage of respondents

Human-wildlife conflict (HWC) challenges:

Figure 3. Main locations of human-wildlife conflict (HWC), by percentage of respondents
Figure 4. Current approaches to help reduce human-wildlife conflict, by percentage of respondents
Figure 5. Field capacities currently needed to help reduce human-wildlife conflict, by percentage of respondents

B. The wildlife biologists answered more open-ended questions about their research questions, study species and habitats, the technology they use and its limitations. Most specialized in larger vertebrates, conducting research on questions of species’ ecology, habitat use, and the impacts of human activities on wildlife.

Environmental challenges:

Technical challenges:

Oryx in northern Kenya. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Where technology can make a difference

We asked the two groups to identify game-changing technologies or tools that a team of engineers could build to address their specific research or conservation challenges. We found that the practitioners on the front line and researchers working in remote areas share many of the same technology needs.  While responses could not be easily categorized, the respondents’ ideas converged on devices that are:

  • automatic
  • real-time
  • remotely-conducted
  • connected externally
  • integrated into a system
  • capable of detection and warning
  • nighttime
  • rugged
  • theft-proof

The wildlife biologists also added devices that are:

A. The Front-Line Conservationists (FLCs)

With multiple responsibilities, the FLCs’ thoughts on game-changing technologies often involved resolving several problems—e.g. poaching, HWC, encroachment—simultaneously.

Figure 6. Tools and technologies that would improve conservation outcomes, by percentage of FLC respondents

 

Chameleon in Madagascar. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

 

B. The wildlife biologists

Researchers across the board desire longer-lasting batteries; smaller, lighter data collection devices, including DNA readers and tracking tags; remote access to camera traps and other sensors, and lower-cost satellite-connected smartphones, sensors and imagery. They also want these long-lasting, lighter, more reliable devices to better withstand humidity, dust and damage, with several types of tools mentioned repeatedly:

Like the FLCs, researchers highlighted ideas that combined technologies, including remote-controlled or automated triggers of cameras or alerts and improved communication among aerial, vehicle and ground sensors (e.g. cameras), tracking tags, data collection devices and satellites.

Both groups identified real-time animal monitoring as a game-changing technology, but biologists aimed to better understand animal ranging and habitat use, while conservationists wanted to detect gunshots and animal movements to alert rangers to poacher presence.

Nonetheless, the desire, even among researchers, for technologies, such as hidden cameras or thermal-image goggles to record wildlife crime, or long-lasting RFID tags that can detect and thwart poachers, shows their concern for their study species and the impact of human disturbance on research as well as conservation areas.

A road divides tropical rain forest in Peru. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

You can read a report of the survey results, which we will continue to use to help inform the content of wildtech.mongabay.com and encourage the advancement of technologies that could improve the conservation and research of wildlife and wild places.

We encourage you to brainstorm, suggest and test possible solutions, and contact colleagues who could contribute their knowledge and experience to addressing any of the challenges identified by the respondents!