“Conservation is central to having a planet we can live on and requires having biodiversity and protected spaces,” according to Stephanie O’Donnell, community manager at WILDLABS, the first global online community for conservation technology.
Technology — including satellite data, remote sensing, and drones — can play a big role in conservation efforts, she said. But with limited resources available to conservationists, it can be hard to know where to focus efforts and how to implement technology in an impactful way.
“When you're talking technology, it's everything from tiny tracking tags on bats or geospatial data to monitor human-wildlife conflict, pressures on different resources, or monitoring the effects of climate change,” O’Donnell said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the role of technology and the importance of building local capacity.
WILDLABS — formed in 2015 and born out of a coalition between Fauna & Flora International, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and Zoological Society of London — facilitates connections between conservationists, engineers, data scientists, and designers, and it provides a space to collaboratively innovate tech-based solutions for conservation’s biggest challenges.
“Our approach is that we should be supporting the people who live closest to biodiversity to protect and manage their natural resources, wildlife, and biodiversity,” O’Donnell said, adding that it is key to put the right conservation tools into the hands of those who can make use of them and create real-world impact.
Talking with Devex, O’Donnell discussed how conservation efforts feed into the development process, the barriers to rolling out technological solutions, and how to overcome them through community-powered collaboration.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
“When conservationists use technology, they have to figure things out themselves. But tools are becoming much more user-friendly and interoperable, making things more accessible.”— Stephanie O’Donnell, community manager, WILDLABS
What is the link between conservation and the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?
You can't unpack all of it. That's why conservation is such a challenging area to work in — because it's so interconnected. You can't address climate change without looking at biodiversity. You can't look at tourism without looking at climate change. Climate change is going to exacerbate challenges that we're facing, whether it's human-wildlife conflict, competition for resources, or loss of habitat.
The solution also lies in biodiversity and natural climate solutions. Data, satellite data, and remote monitoring have a critical role to play. If we're talking about the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], a big part of that is monitoring and tracking how it's going, so we need better technology to track carbon and losses and gains. I think it underpins everything.
Also, the development sector is a couple of years beyond where conservation is at. With so many lessons learned from the development sector, we really need to be bringing that knowledge into the conservation sector.
Through your work with WILDLABS, what impact have you seen technology have in this space so far?
The field is really maturing and changing rapidly. We're seeing such big shifts from just five years ago, when it was disparate actors operating alone, trying to solve challenges individually. Over the last few years, we've seen more collaborations emerge, like Wildlife Insights, a coalition of conservation partners supported by Google that is bringing machine-learning tools to camera trap data processing and making that technology more accessible for conservationists.
One of the big issues we’ve seen quite often is that when conservationists use technology, they have to figure things out themselves. But tools are becoming much more user-friendly and interoperable, making things more accessible.
There are also more opportunities, like with WILDLABS, for people to get training and resources to use tools more effectively. With over 5,000 active members from around the world, WILDLABS is the place best suited to not only helping tech developers understand the role of technology in conservation, but to playing an active part in meeting crucial challenges and creating new solutions as well.
There are also better tools available now, like EarthRanger and SMART [Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool], which are critical if you're operating in a protected area. They allow you to pull in a lot of information from camera traps, sensors, and rangers; see where they're moving throughout the landscape; and access that information much more easily, while having the geographic layers you need within your system.
What are the barriers to rolling out this sort of technology, and how can these be overcome?
With specific technologies, there are ongoing issues around battery life and size, because if you're putting a tag on an animal, it needs to be really small. A tag also needs to last for five years or so, because it can be disruptive and dangerous for an animal to be captured in order to deploy a tag frequently. The tech also has to withstand really tough field conditions, whether it's the savanna, rainforest, or Arctic.
On the systemic level, the most significant issues that we see to the uptake of technology are around cost because there are limited resources in conservation. And not just the upfront costs; there are also often unexpected maintenance costs. We hear from a lot of field users who say that even if they can fund and pay for the initial cost of the putting in a system, three years down the line, the maintenance is an ongoing financial barrier.
The second big challenge is around capacity building. Conservationists need skilling-up in terms of how to use technology, understanding what's available, and then trying to sort through the hype. “Should I use this drone in my projects, or is it better to have boots on the ground? What's the trade-off here? Am I going to get hit with unexpected costs down the line?” Trying to understand what's actually applicable in their work and sort through all of the noise to find useful technology solutions is a challenge.
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The final barrier is the need for more coordination. There's a lot of willingness within the community, and one of the questions we ask people is, “Are you feeling optimistic about conservation technology in the next five to 10 years?” The majority of people are, and that’s partly because there’s a lot of willingness to cooperate and collaborate and a communal recognition that data-sharing is important. What's missing at the moment is more support for collaboration and building coalitions.
What advice would you have on utilizing satellite data for others working to conserve wildlife and biodiversity?
If you're just getting started in technology — either from the conservation side or as a tech person wanting to get into conservation — come to the WILDLABS community, because we're set up to make information more accessible.
One of the barriers from the conservation side is that, while innovation is easy and ideas are great, what we actually need is technology that’s effective in the field. We've been supporting Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s work to establish a center of excellence for conservation technology, which is intended to create a space for testing and developing technologies, while offering ongoing training to support the full cycle of tech development.
My advice would also be to understand what the conservation technology community needs. Simply talking to conservationists — asking “what's your challenge?” to help them articulate what they need from technology and then working from the user perspective — is an effective way to make conservation technology development more effective. You’ll be able to connect conservationists to the tech experts who can actually help them.