Applying Technology to Our Conservation Mission

Carter Roberts
Jun 25, 2018 · 4 min read
Rangers in the Maasai Mara National Reserve testing new FLIR thermal cameras. © WWF-US / Colby Loucks

Every night, park rangers patrol the pitch-black savanna of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. They search for armed poachers who spill across the border from Tanzania to hunt for bush meat and ivory. For years the number of poachers overwhelmed the relatively small cadre of rangers. As a recent issue of WIRED (UK edition) explains, technology is now helping to turn the tide. Rangers are now equipped with thermal imaging video cameras, enabling them to catch poachers at record rates and deter many more from even making the attempt.

This cutting-edge application of technology resulted from WWF’s partnership with FLIR Systems Inc. (FLIR stands for “forward-looking infrared”), a fast-growing company donating technology derived from its military systems to help combat poaching. Jim Cannon, the CEO of FLIR, and I recently had a working meeting to define measurable ways to reduce poaching, and how we can leverage our network of partners to scale up that work. Importantly, Jim and FLIR made a commitment to help put their technology to work in some of the most important rhino reserves in Kenya.

WWF’s partnership with FLIR showcases how we’re using technology to augment our conservation efforts around the world. Now more than ever, the advent of new technology — from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to remote IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, satellite image processing, machine learning, and big data analytics — has the potential to transform our work.

We laid the foundation for many of these partnerships in 2012 with the Wildlife Crime Technology Project, an initiative that Google.org made possible with a generous $5 million donation with the goal of changing the way we think and approach conservation challenges. I recently saw the output of some of that investment in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where a network of surveillance cameras now monitors the boundary of the park. Thanks to Google’s funding, rangers can spot potential poachers and keep an eye on tigers and other wildlife when they roam too close to adjacent communities. We’re also testing whether we can apply machine learning to automate this process.

The Wildlife Crime Technology Project has also attracted key companies like FLIR and Cisco, which came together in 2016 to support elephant and rhino anti-poaching efforts in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. The partnership uses FLIR’s thermal imaging cameras, supported by a backbone of Cisco’s networking technologies.

Beyond direct interventions to stop poaching, WWF also uses technology to go after wildlife traffickers. As more nations adopt stricter laws on wildlife products, the illegal wildlife trade increasingly migrates online. WWF has responded with an aggressive goal to reduce wildlife trafficking online by 80% by 2020. To that end, we’re working with a coalition of leading e-commerce and social media giants in the U.S. and China to root out the sale of illicit wildlife products on their platforms.

In the oceans, WWF has partnered with TRAFFIC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to develop DETECT IT: Fish, a big data analytics tool which searches millions of trade records within seconds. It can help find suspicious imports and exports of fish that point to illegal activity (the tool runs on the Cloud, with current support from Microsoft). And this year, our WWF network partners began a project using blockchain technology that could ultimately empower consumers to track the entire journey that their tuna takes “from bait to plate.”

Technology also helps us monitor and safeguard natural habitats. We’re partnering with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and UCLA to develop an algorithm that enables detection of deforestation from palm oil expansion using remote sensing data, and we’re exploring the potential to expand this technology to other commodities.

An informed and engaged public remains critical to all of this work. That’s why WWF engages new partners and pursues novel applications of technology to educate people about the challenges we face and what we’re doing to solve them. In 2016, we partnered with Apple to create an Apps for Earth campaign that raised $8 million and educated millions of people around the world about core conservation issues. More recently, we leveraged Apple’s augmented reality tools to launch the “WWF Free Rivers” app. This immersive, interactive experience lets users see the importance of free-flowing rivers for nature and people, and demonstrates how ill-conceived economic development endangers them both.

The possibilities for these partnerships are endless. American tech companies continue to churn out innovations, and conservation engineers like Eric Becker (who is featured prominently in the WIRED article) are adapting innovations to real-world conservation problems. Our challenge now is to scale this work beyond a few test sites and into all of the places we are working to protect.

FLIR is helping with their commitment to cover important reserves. They’re also sending a field specialist to Kenya to determine other conservation problems where their technology might make the difference.

At WWF, we’re grateful for partners like FLIR, Apple, Google, HPE and the countless others that have already joined us on this journey. Jim Cannon and I meet later this summer to hear from our teams and set some goals for our work together. We encourage any others who might have an innovative solution to protect nature to reach out.

Carter Roberts

Written by

President & CEO, @World_Wildlife (WWF); dad, husband, conservationist, climber, birder, scuba diver; bushwhacking better than following a trail.

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