World Wildlife Day is being celebrated today under the banner of ‘Sustaining all life on Earth’. This theme underscores the many linkages and interdependencies that exist between human progress and the health of the wildlife and plant species that are vital to the earth’s biodiversity. It also projects a welcomed sense of urgency that is spurring action and innovation, by reminding us that finding solutions to sustaining and protecting wildlife is critical to our own survival.
What is the link between wildlife conservation and socio-economic development?
The millions of species of animals and plants that inhabit our planet provide humans with a wide range of economic, social and cultural benefits, and are vital to maintaining the healthy ecosystems that are essential for improving and sustaining our wellbeing. But according to WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report, on average the world has seen a 60 per cent decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians over the last two generations. ‘In many parts of the world,’ explains WWF, ‘the dynamics which threaten species are also those which contribute to poverty, such as loss of habitat and its riches, unsustainable depletion of the natural resource base, inequitable access to natural resources necessary for life, and a lack of appropriate governance and management mechanisms.’
Not surprisingly, then, the conservation of wildlife is necessary to achieving a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to African Parks, community-based wildlife management can help reduce poverty (SDG1) by creating jobs, stimulating local micro-enterprise development, developing skills and knowledge, and improving livelihoods. Protecting biodiversity and maintaining healthy and productive oceans (SDG14 and SDG15) is also crucial to ending hunger (SDG4), particularly in poorer areas of the world where communities are most reliant on their local natural environment. Furthermore, the loss of pollinators and iconic species such as big cats, rhinos and elephants can negatively impact sectors that make significant contributions to developing countries’ GDP – such as agriculture and tourism – and negatively affect human health (SDG3) and resilience to climate change.
How is digital technology impacting the way natural resource management (NRM) organisations work?
The CleanTech team is currently researching the role that digital technology can play to support the management of natural resources. We’ve been delighted to learn that wildlife conservation is a ‘hotspot’ for digital innovation, with many wildlife organisations using new technologies (e.g. connected devices, satellite, drones and data visualisation tools) to establish protected areas as places where both people and wildlife are kept from harm and able to coexist.
Last month, we travelled to South Africa to see first-hand how wildlife parks and conservationists are using these digital technologies to provide decision-makers with previously unattainable levels of ‘situational awareness’: a circular process through which data is collected, monitored and visualised in real-time, and quickly analysed to create an informed response plan.
Key wildlife species, assets and individuals are tracked in near real-time using a combination of connected devices and data collection tools, including the Cybertracker Mobile App; tracking devices such as animal collars, ear tags, and digital radios; and remote feeds from fence alerts, camera traps or acoustic sensors. These devices are linked to fit-for-purpose and easy-to-use online software solutions that collect, integrate and display all historical and real-time data available from a protected area. The systems are designed to provide users with a unified view of all of the animals, sensors, and incidents in their protected area and offers key insights into meaningful trends, including animal movements and behaviours, ecological changes (such as the spread of invasive species) and law-enforcement incidents.
Where high levels of situational awareness exist, wildlife parks and protected areas will have greater capacity to maintain healthy wildlife populations, protect ecosystems from the impact of climate change or invasive species, support law enforcement efforts to combat poaching, reduce human-wildlife conflict, and help ensure that protected areas are socially and financially sustainable.
How is the industry supporting wildlife conservation?
We have seen many compelling examples of GSMA members using digital technology to make significant contributions to wildlife management. For instance, in South Africa, Vodacom has partnered with Wildlife ACT to design a tracking and monitoring system that uses SIM cards attached to tracking collars to send protected animals’ location data via SMS.
Microsoft’s AI for Earth initiative developed the Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), which collects historical information from previous poaching incidents, then uses machine learning and behavioural modelling to generate heat maps that show likely attack areas and the effort required to reach them, helping rangers plan better patrol routes. The outcome is more effective patrols and better use of resources in the fight against poaching vulnerable species.
Cisco has partnered with Dimension Data to establish the Connected Conservation initiative – a proactive approach to conservation that leverages a mixture of sensors, CCTV, biometrics and wi-fi to detect suspicious activity early as rhino poachers enter wildlife parks. The secure, reliable network can operate 24 hours a day across the entire game reserves, and is able to protect the rhinos without disturbing its natural state of being. The project has already been rolled out to Zambia, with another set to start in Kenya, but conservationists behind it are now looking elsewhere, with a number of interested parties from India, New Zealand and beyond.
In the coming months, we will be finalising our research on the role that digital technology can play to support wildlife conservation, forest management and other natural resource management sectors. We are excited to share emerging lessons on the specific incentives, bottlenecks, preferences and benefits that stakeholders are encountering when engaging with digital services, and also sharing stories of innovation and best-practice. Be sure to watch this space!