- The use of technology for conservation and wildlife monitoring increased in recent years, with camera traps and remote sensing being the most popular tools, a report has found.
- The report by conservation technology network WildLabs also found that artificial intelligence was highly ranked for its potential impact, but was ranked low in terms of current performance because of accessibility issues.
- Marginalized groups, including women and people from lower-income countries, were found to face disproportionate barriers to accessing resources and training.
- “The motivation behind this research was to capture the experiences of the global conservation technology community, and to speak with a united voice,” says Talia Speaker, who led the research.
As an undergraduate biology student, Talia Speaker faced several hurdles in using technology in her work. Biology and ecology professors weren’t well-versed with the technical side of things, while those in the computer science and engineering departments didn’t seem to have an interest in biodiversity.
“I was a struggling undergrad who was trying to analyze species in camera-trap images,” Speaker says. “There really weren’t interdisciplinary programs that I was aware of.”
That situation, she says, has changed drastically over the past five years.
“So many wildlife conservation projects are using technology in their work, and leveraging it in different ways and thinking about how innovation is playing a role in their organizations,” Speaker, currently a research specialist at conservation technology community WildLabs, tells Mongabay in a video interview.
Much of Speaker’s work now focuses on how technology performs when applied in the context of wildlife monitoring and biodiversity conservation. A report published by WildLabs, based on research led by Speaker, looks at how scientists, academics, NGOs and conservationists are using technology in their work. The report analyzes data from a three-year period to identify trends and patterns in the field of conservation technology. Out of the 630 people who participated in surveys for the research, almost all said they used at least one technology tool in their conservation work. Close to 80% of the participants said they used more than two tools.
Camera traps and remote sensing were found to be the most widely used tools. Artificial intelligence and its growing application in data analysis were also found to have intrigued many respondents, although its perceived impact was found to be low, likely due to accessibility issues.
The report also provides data that back well-known assumptions about the inaccessibility of technology for marginalized groups. Women and people from lower-income countries were found to “face disproportionate barriers in terms of accessing resources and training, and finding the support that they need to engage in this space,” Speaker says.
While the field of conservation technology has indeed seen dramatic progress in recent years, especially with the use of drones, environmental DNA and artificial intelligence, Speaker says there’s still a long way to go. There’s still not as much cross-sector collaboration as she’d like to see, and more importantly, lack of funding continues to remain a hurdle.
“We can do this much with so little. Imagine what we could do if we did get the attention of the world and the investment that we actually need to do this work,” Speaker says.
In an interview with Mongabay’s Abhishyant Kidangoor, Talia Speaker discusses the findings from the WildLabs report, the tech tools currently being widely used, and the gaps that persist in the field of conservation technology. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: To start with, could you tell me why WildLabs decided to work on this report? Why did you think it was important?
Talia Speaker: The motivation behind this report, and also this broader research program, is that we saw WildLabs has created a global online community of people who are using and developing technologies for conservation all over the world. We noticed that a lot of them were expressing similar constraints. They had similar experiences of struggling with certain things they’re seeing in the field. So the motivation behind this research was to just capture the experiences of the global conservation technology community, and to speak with that united voice. We are quite a niche area that is growing a lot. We felt like it’s really powerful to capture the essence of what people are experiencing so that we can feed that back to the community members themselves and say, “Hey, you’re not alone. This is an experience that other people are also having and this is how we can help each other,” but also to be able to communicate that to decision-makers, funders, people working on policy, and raise awareness of the things that need to change and opportunities they can take advantage of.
Mongabay: Could you tell me how the report came about?
Talia Speaker: It actually started off as my master’s research project. WildLabs has a history of surveying our community annually since we were launched in 2015. Initially, this was meant to be a survey designed to just understand how people were using WildLabs. Then, in 2020, with the pandemic, we couldn’t do in-person research as planned. We saw an opportunity to build this into an actual survey tool that was looking at these bigger-picture questions about the state of our field. In 2021, we published our initial research in partnership with Colorado State University, which is where I was doing my master’s research. That was also the first time we had included folks who are not involved already in the WildLabs community. So it became a global survey tool. This past year was the first time we were able to do a trends report looking at three years of data. That was because we had an intern working with us who had data science skills, and we had the capacity for the first time to look at how things were changing over time.
Mongabay: If you were to highlight the big findings from the report, what would they be?
Talia Speaker: One thing that we found in our initial launch of the report in 2021, and that we’ve seen since then, is how people’s perceptions of technologies are changing over time. We asked them to rate on a one-to-five scale questions like “How is this technology currently working for you?” and “What potential do you see for this tool to make a difference in the field of conservation?” One of the things that we have seen consistently is that AI tools are seen as one of the most highly ranked in terms of their potential impact, but one of the lowest in terms of current performance because of accessibility issues. We also saw that network sensors were really high up on the list of potential, but low on performance. eDNA [environmental DNA] and genomics used to be in the top three in the initial report in 2021. Now, eDNA and genomics is almost at the bottom of perceived potential impact.
This is people’s perception. So it’s a complex thing to understand. But we think that a lot of that has to do with the technology hype cycle: there will be a wave of initial excitement, interest and intrigue, and then they get to this kind of peak of inflated expectations. Then they go into the trough of disillusionment when they’re actually adopting these tools and running into practical issues and figuring out how to actually leverage it. Then, eventually, you get to this plateau of productivity where it’s actual and useful adoption of the tool.
The second thing is that we now have a lot more data, although we have always known it anecdotally, that historically marginalized groups in the conservation tech space are really facing disproportionate challenges, and they continue to do so. This includes women and individuals who identified as working in or being from lower-income countries. They face disproportionate barriers in terms of accessing resources and training, and finding the support that they need to engage in this space.
Mongabay: Could you walk me through your findings on the tech tools that are most popular and the ones that are not living up to expectations?
Talia Speaker: In terms of trending tools, I would say camera traps, and GIS [geographic information systems] and remote sensing, are consistently two of the groups that have the most people who are engaging with them. These aren’t the most exciting or cutting-edge tools, although there are groups working on advancing them and making them more cutting edge, but they’re classically used and widely adopted all over the world and some of the most accessible tools as well. If you’re looking at conservation impact right now, those are some of the ones that are being used the most. Increasingly, biologging tools like animal trackers in all of their forms are also seeing a lot of growing interest. In terms of the groups where we saw increased numbers, and where more people were engaging than before, there were AI tools as well as data management and processing tools. This includes platforms like Wildlife Insights and Movebank that help people manage and analyze data.
Network sensors and AI tools, however, still rank lower in terms of adoption, accessibility, and people understanding how to use them and leverage them in the conservation space. But everyone is talking about it from the perspective of real-time alerts and increasing connectivity, especially as hardware costs come down. Global connectivity is rising, and so there’s more opportunities to leverage IoT-enabled [internet of things] tools. AI is taking over the world, as we know, and we’re seeing that in the conservation space as well.
Mongabay: What surprised you the most from your findings?
Talia Speaker: It’s kind of a boring answer. But what surprised us most is the consistency of the answers, and how much people are agreeing with each other on what the challenges are in this space. Also, I am amazed by people’s willingness and enthusiasm to participate in the survey. All of my advisers and a lot of the people that we worked with were so surprised at the level of engagement that we got from our community. Some of these people will write eight-paragraph essays for some questions, which we can get a little too much. But it’s really wonderful that people have strong opinions, and that they’re passionate about this. They’re just trying to express their needs, and also their ideas for the future and figuring out how to work together and make it better.
Mongabay: As someone who works in this field, how do you think conservation technology is faring now?
Talia Speaker: It is growing so much. WildLabs was launched in 2015, and I joined the team in 2018 after being a struggling undergrad, who was trying to analyze species in camera-trap images. At that time, I remember going to my ecology and biology professors and seeing them have no skills in computer science and no ability to help me even though they were supportive of my work. I also remember going to the computer science department in my university, and just not finding anyone who was interested enough to take the time to help me and give me advice. I didn’t know where to look for support, and there really weren’t interdisciplinary programs that I was aware of. Now, so many of the projects in our wildlife conservation team are using technology in their work, leveraging it in different ways and thinking about how innovation is playing a role in our organizations. So just in the past five to 10 years, it’s changed so much.
There are so many resources out there now for people who are interested in using these tools and developing them, and there are more pathways for people to get engaged. It’s still something we are navigating. We need to figure out a shared language between our groups, the policy groups, the tech groups and governments. A lot of us are talking about the same thing. It’s just that we use different language. Academics will phrase things as questions, conservationists will phrase things as community-centered or species-centered, and tech people will obviously be tech-focused. What we want is to create shared spaces and find ways that we can work together.
Mongabay: Personally, what technology excites you the most?
Talia Speaker: I’m excited to see how eDNA develops. The whole eDNA and genetics realm, I think, is a really interesting space that’s getting a lot of attention right now. Obviously, it’s also going through some adoption learning curve. Right now, a lot of the applications are still done in partnership with eDNA companies, which do a lot of the technical side of things. I think there’s a lot of potential to make tools in that area more user-friendly. I think it’s something that has a lot of potential for being a very affordable solution that can help to get a lot of bang for your buck with the data.
Another area I am excited about is bioacoustics, which is such a great noninvasive tool. I’ve been focused on movement ecology for the last year or two. There are so many useful and interesting things that we just don’t have a better way to do right now, other than some invasive methods. But I think the more we can advance the noninvasive technologies and make them really accessible and useful to conservationists, the better off we’re going to be and the more information we are going to get.
It sounds less exciting but I am also excited about things like data management systems and how we share data across groups and modalities. Initially, conservation had a lack of data. We just didn’t have enough understanding of what’s out there, and we really needed to develop it. Now, we have a full array of tools to collect data. We’re in this big data era in conservation. But we need to figure out how to more efficiently and effectively turn the data into actual insights that can inform management and policy. We have a time pressure here because we’re facing critical challenges all over the world.
Mongabay: What are the big gaps in the field that concern you?
Talia Speaker: I still come across projects often where someone’s like, “Hey, there’s this really basic simple thing that everyone is struggling with. It wouldn’t be that hard to make this thing and to fix it.” We’d look around at each other and think, “How does this not exist yet?” We’re just so far behind from other fields. Technology is enabling everything in our lives. Yes, conservation tech has moved so much, but there’s still so many things that are not working well, and not affordable and accessible as they should be. I think it’s less about the big tool that’s going to change everything and more about making it accessible.
Our community’s needs are focused less on the super-sexy, cutting-edge stuff, and more on how to make the tools useful and available to most of the world. Looking at how far we are with the technologies that are driving everything else in the world, and wanting to see those resources, investment and availability for what I think are some of the world’s most important challenges that we’re facing today, sometimes it’s frustrating.
Health care has all these innovations that have happened. The only way space research has gotten this far is by having dedicated resources, dedicated engineers and cross-sector collaborations and brains dedicated to advancing something. We’re doing so much in conservation with so little. How does the world not see that this is also something we need to be investing in? On the other hand, it’s really inspiring because we can do this much with so little. Imagine what we could do if we did get the attention of the world and the investment that we actually need to do this work.
Mongabay: How do you hope this situation will change in the coming years?
Talia Speaker: I hope the conservation community has more access to tools that are effective, affordable and accessible. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s just not the case right now. There’s lots of big-picture ideas about how we can take the next step with technology. I’m sure they will continue to evolve and improve. But at the end of the day, we know that local communities and Indigenous communities are the best stewards of our land. Right now, the majority of those communities don’t have access to the tools that we need to be monitoring and measuring biodiversity, and feeding them into the global policy frameworks that are driving a lot of the decision-making in our world. So I think it’s really the structural improvements that we’re hoping to contribute to and hoping that the world recognizes.
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Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @AbhishyantPK.