Emerging technologies are a boon for the work of conservation researchers, but not all universities are equipped for them

Technology is playing an increasingly vital role in conservation and ecology research. Drones in particular hold huge potential in the fight to save the world’s remaining wildlife from extinction. With their help, researchers can now track wild animals through dense forests and monitor whales in vast oceans. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature estimates that up to five living species on earth become extinct every day, making it vital that universities develop new technologies to capture the data that can persuade those in power to act.

The British International Education Association and the Born Free Foundation hosted a conference in January to highlight the importance of technological solutions in protecting vulnerable species and ecosystems. Speakers underlined how technology can help conservation efforts: fixed-wing drones can land on water and circle high above the Indian Ocean to spot whales, rays and illegal fishing, while artificial intelligence-enabled infrared cameras are able to identify members of an individual species or human poachers, even through thick environmental cover.

According to Claudio Sillero, professor of conservation biology at Oxford University and Born Free’s chief scientist, technology is changing the way conservation research is done – but it’s in an evolutionary way. As the technology gets better, cheaper and smaller, researchers get better at doing what they were already doing. For example, remote sensing used to be a very technical tool but is now ubiquitous, and everyone uses geographic information system (GIS) and global positioning system (GPS) for surveying.

“We started with handheld gadgets in the 1960s and now we are using satellites,” Sillero says. “With sensors and probes we can go out into the field and measure virtually everything.”

“Universities are trying to keep up and provide facilities and courses but the drive comes from entrepreneurial students, individual research projects or small teams that embrace technology and pick up new stuff,” he says.

The emergence of affordable, recreational and commercial drones has been a “revelation”, says Melissa Schiele, a researcher with the Zoological Society of London. “Innovative methodologies are being explored and the applications are being tried and tested around the world, on a plethora of species and in all environments. It’s seriously exciting.”

But researchers are still learning how to gather new types of imagery and pull new data sets from them.

Equally, teaching in university conservation and ecology courses differs. Some teach drone surveying methods in depth while others don’t even mention them. “The fact is, using drones in itself is quite a leap into the interdisciplinary ‘unknown’ of engineering and piloting, and potentially an area where lecturers may not feel confident to teach yet,” Schiele says. “Ecologists are in the early days of officially integrating this into the curriculum and it is gaining traction. It has to.”

Serge Wich, professor in primate biology in Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Natural Sciences, agrees: students are taught about well-established technologies such as camera traps and automatic acoustic recorders, but drones are often missing from university teaching.

As a result, drone use among researchers is still fairly limited and focused on getting photos, he says.

Wich’s eclectic team of researchers used techniques from astronomy and machine-learning to develop a fully automated drone technology system that tracks and monitors the health of endangered animals around the globe. It’s designed to be cheap, robust and simple to use, so that local communities in developing countries can operate it independently without any technical background. Thermal cameras allow detection of animals in the dark, which can then be classified automatically with imaging technologies used in astronomy, meaning researchers have the potential to monitor endangered animals more effectively than ever before.

Yet it’s not more widely used because few researchers have the skills to use this type of technology. In biology, where many people are starting to use drones, few can code an algorithm specifically for their conservation or research problem, Wich says. “There’s a lot that needs to be done to bridge those two worlds and to make the AI more user-friendly so that people who can’t code can still use the technology.”

The solutions are more support from tech companies, better teaching in universities to help students overcome their fears of coding, and finding ways to link technologies together in an internet-of-things concept where all the different sensors, including GPS, drones, cameras and sensors, work together.

The really significant advances for wildlife conservation researchers, however, are being made in big data. “My students no longer look at the data with pencil and paper. They put it through fast computers and use machine-learning algorithms,” says Sillero.

More work is needed in capturing and analysing data meaningfully and quickly so that managers and patrol teams on the ground can monitor logging and habitat loss. “Most parks won’t have very technical people to analyse data or pay for software,” says Wich. “Analysis needs to be automated.”

Liz Greengrass, Born Free’s head of conservation, agrees. While technology is a wonderful tool, data needs to prompt real change. “None of these technologies work unless the data is acted upon and a legal framework is in place and people are prosecuted. We can facilitate the detection but from there the issues still remain the same.”

The sad truth is that better technology alone will not save any more species from annihilation, Greengrass warns. “As human populations increase, so do threats and pressure on wild places. Conservationists are criticised for not doing enough but it’s often an issue of people, conflict and governance.” Technology may help provide far greater knowledge, but governments still need to act.