Tech Tools and Innovation Are Driving Projects that Protect Endangered Animals
Biodiversity keeps ecosystems stable, species fed and the climate controlled. But the planet’s eclectic ecological makeup is at risk: The International Union for Conservation of Nature has found that more than a quarter of every species it has documented is endangered. And the World Wildlife Foundation has recorded a 60 percent decline in the mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations in the past 40 years. Project teams are pushing back on the extinction trend—using everything from drones and big data to trained dogs and poison pellets to advance animal conservation and make the planet just a little more livable.
Project: A smarter way to track bees
Location: Pennsylvania Mountain, Colorado, USA
Pollination-dependent food sources are getting stung by declining bee populations. And most tracking solutions that could help measure the impact of interventions have proven expensive and inefficient. But a team from the University of Missouri discovered a method to track bees by their signature vibrations. The team discovered that traits like body and tongue length influence a bee’s pollination patterns, and that these traits can be tied to specific frequencies. It now has a project underway to monitor these patterns using an acoustic-tracking app, with a goal of empowering farmers and beekeepers to use it to track colony and pollination activity.
Scratch and Sniff
Project: Training rescue dogs to find poachers
Location: Mfuwe, Zambia
To curb rhino poaching in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, Working Dogs for Conservation has launched a series of projects with local partners to train handlers to work with rescue dogs that are able to sniff out everything from gun-powder to ivory. The dogs have since been deployed with teams handling searches at roadblocks, buildings, borders and airports, as well as teams leading weapon confiscation.
The Good Shepherds
Project: Training dogs to defend livestock
Location: Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania, Romania
Wolves can survive in extremely diverse climates—from the arctic to the desert—yet many populations have been decimated by humans looking to secure land or livestock. To protect the wolf population in the Zarand Landscape Corridor, LIFE Connect Carpathians launched a shepherd dog project to pair Carpathian shepherd puppies with farmers and train them on how to handle and breed the dogs. The project’s goal is to have dogs deter—rather than guns wipe out—the area’s wolves.
Project: Tap influencers to end ivory purchases
More than two years after China banned the trade of ivory from elephants, the World Wildlife Foundation launched a marketing project to take its elephant protection efforts a step further. Backed by sponsors including the World Travel & Tourism Council, China Customs and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the team brought in celebrities and influencers to help persuade Chinese tourists to avoid illegally transporting ivory from outside the country, among other things.
Nothing But Net
Project: Mapping a marine mammal
Location: Gulf of California, Mexico
The vaquita has been the world’s most endangered marine mammal for a while, but researchers have struggled to comprehensively map the remaining population. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change launched a project that’s starting to show signs of life. Through passive acoustic monitoring, the team was able to prove that vaquita populations had dropped to shockingly low numbers—mainly due to illegal gill net fishing, which often accidentally drowns the porpoises. Still, conservationists are struggling to keep the vaquita population—which dipped as low as 10 individuals last year—afloat.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Project: Capture rare images of muriquis
Location: Serra do Mar, Brazil
The first step to building a comprehensive conservation plan is understanding the population size, movement and activity of the animal. But muriquis—a species of endangered monkeys that, behind humans, are the largest primates in the Americas—have long been elusive. A team at the Conservation Leadership Programme set out to change that two years ago by hiking through the forests of Brazil’s Serra do Mar region to install two sets of camera traps—one at ground level and one in the tree canopy. The team was rewarded with the first-ever camera trap images of muriquis. Next step: using those images to map out a conservation plan tailored to these elusive monkeys.
Project: A digital-first tiger population survey
An app developed by the Wildlife Institute of India makes the tiger population estimation process more efficient by eliminating the need to manually record sightings and other data, and helps standardize recording protocol across cities and states. The Monitoring System for Tiger-Intensive Protection and Ecological Status app stores images and text that eventually are uploaded to a central server. As part of its app development project, the team also deployed trainers to teach forest guards and other conservation workers how to use the app.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Project: Using drones to monitor the ocean
Location: Chagos Archipelago, Indian Ocean
Wide expanses of open water in the ocean make animals difficult to protect and poachers difficult to track. But a team at the Zoological Society of London’s Bertarelli Program in Marine Science is trying to change that by deploying the first water-landing, fixed-wing drone designed for marine ecology surveillance. First tested during a pilot project in 2018, the drone can fly for two hours at a time with a range of about 13 miles (22 kilometers). To track surface-level marine populations such as sharks and turtles, the drone takes aerial images every second, which are analyzed by the team. The drones also can help spot illegal hunting vessels—an important benefit in an area monitored by only one patrol ship.
Project: Analyzing satellite images to track flocks
Location: Chatham Islands, New Zealand
A team from the British Antarctic Survey and the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand is using satellites to bird-watch— or rather, count seabird populations in a more cost- and time-effective way. The new method examines computerized copies of satellite imagery to count the white dots of endangered albatrosses against the pixelated brown background of the Chatham Islands and other breeding sites. Tapping into tech is also less intrusive and mitigates risks.
Big Data, Big Picture
Project: Preventing poaching through analytics
Location: Kruger National Park, South Africa
South Africa is home to the world’s largest remaining rhino population, but a lucrative black market for the animal’s horn has fueled a poaching surge. South Africa’s Data Shack launched a project to centralize data from a variety of sources, including gun serial numbers, and found never-before-seen patterns in poaching activity. After the team found that most of the guns used by poachers came from a single supplier in Europe, it targeted this import stream to disrupt poaching.
Project: Spoiling mice to spare the albatross
Location: Gough Island, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
The volcanic island in the South Atlantic is an important breeding ground for over 20 bird species, including the critically endangered Tristan albatross. But this species’s population is dwindling due to invasive mice, introduced by sailors in the 19th century, which eat half of the 1,000 albatross chicks hatched each year. So the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds partnered with the Tristan da Cunha Island Council to launch a US$10 million mice eradication project, which moves into execution phase this year. The team will use helicopters to drop rodenticide pellets (that won’t harm other species) across the island. Project plans include a two-year posteradication monitoring phase to ensure the mice are gone for good.
Project: Hatching a new breeding program for birds
Location: Kauai, Hawaii, USA
The endangered ‘akikiki is one of eight remaining native birds on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. When the population declined dramatically in the early 2010s, the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project team stepped in with a captive breeding program. The team tracks down the birds’ notoriously hard-to-find nests—a task that can take 30-plus hours, on average—then transfers eggs to a facility run by the team’s partners at San Diego Zoo’s Institute of Conservation Research. Here they are hatched and nurtured. By mid-2019, the project yielded real benefits: 44 ‘akikikis successfully living in captivity—including the first-ever to be born outside the wild.