Building Capacity for Conservation Tech in the COVID Era

By Tony Lynam | September 1, 2022

Community rangers in the YUS Conservation Area, PNG learn how to use smartphones for monitoring wildlife hunting during an in person training session. Photo ©WCS.

In the late 1980s, the discipline of conservation science was conceived to address the challenges of habitat fragmentation, extinction risk, and saving small populations. Tools of the trade at the time were desktop computers and mathematical models. A third of a century later, the science and practice of conservation has been revolutionized by the advent of field methods that integrate technologies.

A broad array of tools are now available to practitioners for monitoring individual animals and estimating their populations with different kinds of sensors: camera-traps, acoustic monitors, remote-sensed imagery, radio-collars, and satellite tags. Each sensor produces its own kind of data that must be collected, stored, and analyzed. With the advent of the COVID pandemic, the training for use of these tools has become more complicated.

For monitoring the health of individual protected areas and networks, we have the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) and Earth Ranger. The former is an integrated information management platform that brings together data from patrols, community reports, intelligence, and surveys for use with adaptive management. The latter is a domain awareness platform for visualizing the location and movements of tagged animals, vehicles, drones, ranger teams, and other assets.

“With the advent of the COVID pandemic, training in the use of a broad array of tools to monitor animals and estimate their populations has become more complicated.”

The evolution of SMART as a conservation tool makes an interesting case study in how technology is being adapted to meet the needs of field practitioners. In the decade since SMART was first publicly released in 2012, more than 1,000 sites across 70 countries have adopted the tool. This includes 20 national governments that have adopted SMART for use across their networks of protected areas — both terrestrial and marine.

A community ranger at the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, in Cambodia, demonstrates what he learned through the SMART training program organized by WCS. Photo ©WCS.

SMART is used for a range of protected area management mandates ranging from law enforcement patrol, wildlife surveys, disease surveillance, wildlife crime investigations, and human-wildlife conflict management.

Part of the vision for SMART is that any agency wanting to use it can have access to training to build the skills and capacity of rangers, analysts, administrators, and park managers to use the SMART tools. As a result, WCS and nine partner organizations that form the SMART partnership ran 206 trainings for 3,385 participants in the years from 2013 through 2020.

“How can rangers learn to use handheld devices, analysts learn the SMART software, or managers learn to use SMART reports if trainers cannot meet them face-to-face?”

But while the SMART technology is free to anyone, training costs money and it can be challenging to reach and deliver training given the far-flung places where SMART users live and work. With the pandemic, entire regions of the world were, until recently, off-limits for travel, and some protected areas still remain inaccessible. How can rangers learn to use handheld devices, analysts learn the SMART software, or managers learn to use SMART reports if trainers cannot meet them face-to-face?

After COVID struck and many of us had to stay home for two years, technology came to the rescue with the emergence of tools for virtual training: Google Classroom, originally designed for teachers to engage with students through a virtual platform; Zoom, for virtual conferencing; and Loom, for creating videos. Conservation tech tools training has embraced the new normal by allowing conservation training to diversify from in-person to virtual training delivery using these and other tools.

Lyan Sok, a WCS trainer, runs a workshop with community rangers in the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, Cambodia. Building the capacity of trainers who are on the ground and speak the local language will be critical for sustaining conservation capacity at remote sites. Photo ©WCS.

Virtual training has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it’s an equitable solution accessible to all with an internet connection, allowing staff in remote parks to join in training with counterparts in towns and cities. As costs of trainer travel are zero, it is a budget solution that deserves serious consideration by agencies and projects working with limited funding.

On the other hand, virtual training of skills requiring very hands-on learning — such as tricky software functions or operation of handheld devices — may be difficult if the trainer cannot see or explain what’s on the screen of the device in the trainee’s hands. To address this last challenge, SMART has designed a mobile simulator program that allows participants to view what the smartphone interface looks like on a laptop screen. This can be projected via Zoom to the classroom.

“After COVID struck and many of us had to stay home for two years, technology came to the rescue with the emergence of tools for virtual training.”

Since March 2020, more than 40 virtual SMART trainings have been delivered to field practitioners by trainers working from home or office. Another approach has been to build local capacity for training protected area staff by training the trainers virtually.

As the pandemic eases and access to the protected areas and to the staff working in them improves, in-person visits from local trainers will be important for sustaining local capacity, though virtual training will continue to play a role in connecting rangers, analysts, and managers in remote places with the conservation tech classroom.

Tony Lynam is Conservation Technology Field Solutions Advisor at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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