Conservation 2.0: digital tools come to nature’s rescue

Not just for instagram. Steve Wilson, CC BY

Digital tools offer a ray of hope for conservationists in an era when the need for more data to better understand the natural world is ever increasing. From combating rhino poaching in Africa to tracking polar bears in the Arctic the remit for using digital tools in conservation is vast.

And in digital conservation no project is too big or too small. Every year during the spring and summer thousands of interested individuals submit photos to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to find out what Bombus species are buzzing in their gardens. Until two years ago each photo was identified, and a response provided by a lone staff member at the charity – an incredibly slow and time consuming job for one person.

The weight of this task, coupled with the question of whether volunteers could learn to identify species themselves, resulted in the formation of BeeWatch. The digital platform used in BeeWatch not only provides a setting where amateur naturalists can learn valuable identification skills, but also increases the amount of precious data the Bumblebee Conservation Trust can readily access. This boosts knowledge about the distribution of these very important pollinators.

The BeeWatch project is far from alone in using digital tools to engage citizens in science projects. The past few years have seen the rise of many platforms that allow citizens to spot, identify and catalogue different species. There’s iSPOT, which allows users to engage with an array of plant and animal species, Spider in da house for spider enthusiasts and Leafsnap to identify trees. Not only do all of these projects increase the amount of data available for research, they also help to foster relationships between people and the natural world.

Encouraging this kind of citizen science through the use of digital platforms is a vital exercise for conservation research. Citizens vastly multiply the reach and manpower of projects – the ability to collect more data. But digital tools also hold the potential to provide new data collection techniques for researchers working in the field.

Concerns may still resonate around the reliability of taking a piece of digital equipment out into the field – nobody wants to suffer the loss of hard earned data due to faulty software. Researchers are all to aware that this is rarely an issue with a trusty pencil and paper. But with leaps made forward in engineering techniques to deal with difficult environments, the future is looking very promising.

Beyond tracking projects

For many years the pioneers in the use of these tools have largely been tracking projects. The discovery of impressive bird migration and movement patterns of sharks for example has come from species monitored with the help of digital aids. Real time data collected by these technologies offers a tantalising snapshot of individual animals’ behaviour.

Advances in other digital tools have also contributed to impressions of species behaviour. Camera traps are automated digital devices that take a flash photo whenever an animal triggers their infrared sensor. Removing the need for a researcher to hide out in the field, they are used to document wildlife. Similarly, drones are being developed for a range of conservation projects around the world. These tools also minimise human disturbance, which is highly important when trying to understand the private lives of species in the natural world.

Marine conservation drones: The Belize Fisheries Department and Wildlife Conservation Society are exploring using drones to monitor their reefs.

The digital realm is emerging as a prominent and promising area of interest for conservation – but further development in this realm cannot be left in the hands of scholars alone. We all stand to gain from the use of digital tools and we will be hosting a conference to discuss research being done into how technology can be brought to bear to help conservation efforts around the world.

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