Networking Nature

How Technology Is Transforming Conservation

Wired in the wild: an elephant with a tracking collar, Mozambique, November 2007. (Jon Hrusa / Corbis)

Conservation is for the first time beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago. We can now monitor entire ecosystems -- think of the Amazon rainforest -- in nearly real time, using remote sensors to map their three-dimensional structures; satellite communications to follow elusive creatures, such as the jaguar and the puma; and smartphones to report illegal logging.

Such innovations are revolutionizing conservation in two key ways: first, by revealing the state of the world in unprecedented detail and, second, by making available more data to more people in more places. Like most technologies, these carry serious, although manageable, risks: in the hands of poachers, location-tracking devices could prove devastating to the endangered animals they hunt. Yet on balance, technological innovation gives new hope for averting the planet’s environmental collapse and reversing its accelerating rates of habitat loss, animal extinction, and climate change.

CELL PHONES FOR ELEPHANTS

In 2009, I visited the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in northern Kenya. A cattle ranch turned rhinoceros and elephant preserve, Lewa has become a model for African conservation, demonstrating how the tourism that wildlife attracts can benefit neighboring communities, providing them with employment and business opportunities. When I arrived at camp, I was surprised -- and a little dismayed -- to discover that my iPhone displayed five full service bars. So much for a remote wilderness experience, I thought. But those bars make Lewa’s groundbreaking work possible.

More than a decade earlier, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who founded the organization Save the Elephants, had pioneered the use of GPS and satellite communications to study the movements of elephants. At Lewa, Douglas-Hamilton outfitted elephants with tracking collars that connect to the Safaricom mobile network as easily as my cell phone did. These connections allow Lewa’s researchers to effectively call the tracking collars of the conservancy’s elephants and download their location data on demand, all the while plotting their migration between Lewa and the forests flanking Mount Kenya.

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