Can technology make us better stewards of wildlife?

Cecil the lion
Shutterstockpaula french
More than creating isolation, technology is uniting people for a common cause. Here is Cecil the lion in 2012.

The world is horrified by the hunting of Cecil, a 13-year old lion, who was left headless and skinned on the outskirts of a conservation park in Zimbabwe. While deeply personal and upsetting because of Cecil’s popularity with visitors to the park, he is one on a long list of wildlife fatalities.

For example, just recently, the last remaining male northern white rhino in the world was placed under 24-hour surveillance in Kenya — his horn cut off by the authorities to protect him from poachers, his brethren having all been slaughtered for the ivory in their horns.

Globally, the numbers are staggering. One-quarter of the earth’s mammals are set to go extinct in the next 30 years and 90 percent of all the fish in the ocean is gone after a century of particularly ruthless oceanic extraction. Humanity’s consumptive habits are driving these losses.

At the same time, technology has made us more aware of the world and the impacts of our behavior. More than at any time in the history of human interaction with the natural world, we are connected to massive amounts of timely, accurate information. 

The feedback and potential of this information was on display this week. Unlike the deaths of many other lions, elephants or rhinos, Cecil was discovered because he had been tracked with a GPS collar by researchers at the University of Oxford. And it was through social media that his hunter became the object of a very loud and public shaming. A decade ago, Cecil’s horrific death might have faded quietly into background — one of a million other anguished deaths at the hands of, as Jimmy Kimmel called the hunter responsible, "Jackholes."

New, emerging technology can build on this success, while bringing society as a whole closer to wild places. New information and ways of looking at the world will make us more empathetic, and ultimately force us to change our behavior to be better stewards of the natural world.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), virtual tagging and remote sensing fundamentally have changed the way that we can collect and accumulate data about wildlife. Historically, biologists have relied on incomplete or indirect counts of populations, based on extrapolating data collected through field trial. Passive data collection is allowing us to identify and track wildlife at less cost, higher efficiency and more precision than we ever could with teams of field biologists.  

For example, we can tag and track whale shark populations from space, using remote sensing, monitoring their migration and protecting them from poaching. In Belize, Palau and Australia, drones have identified fishing vessels that were overfishing and fishing in restricted waters. 

As small sensors become ubiquitous, we are able to gather better information and connect to powerful pattern-detecting algorithms that identify trends. Even simple data can lead to big insights.

This is critically important for wildlife conservation. When there is a lag in decision-making because information is either too detailed or too slow, NGOs and policy makers are severely restricted in their ability to respond to crises. Historically, we have relied on a combination of instinct, experience and one-off analyses to make decisions.

This is an equation that can’t scale to meet the conservation emergency we face. With better data analytics, we can be faster and more agile to take action that ultimately may save entire species from extinction.

Unfortunately, nature conservation isn’t a particularly lucrative field for aspiring tech companies. Progress in this space is funded by donations and carried out by dedicated individuals and organizations. How do we encourage more of both?  

The burgeoning virtual reality space may hold a clue. Psychologists long have said that behavior change is intrinsically tied to personal experience. While there is clearly no substitute for personal experience in nature, walking amongst the trees or feeling the ocean breeze on your face, augmented and virtual reality can be a promising, and powerful, substitute.

Stanford has created virtual reality games for schools to give children a personal  glimpse of the impacts of climate change. PETA is using virtual reality to allow people to step into the experience of the Orca whale, in its latest protest against Sea World. These virtual experiences have been proven to create deeper empathy in people which leads towards taking action and changing behavior.

We are experiencing one of the most significant periods of rapid technological innovation in human history, while at the same time we are witnessing the greatest global extinction crisis in the last 65 million years. It would be a shame if the gruesome killing of Cecil did not lead to an increased focus and commitment to bring together the best that new technology has to offer for purpose of wildlife conservation.