On the horns of a dilemma: the impact of technology on wildlife conservation

Drones - now in widespread use in tracking wildlife
Drones – now in widespread use in tracking wildlife

New technologies emerge all the time and existing technology is regularly updated and improved to provide enhanced applications in all spheres of our lives. Whether it is communication technologies that create the opportunity to share and correlate information on a previously unprecedented scale or GPS tracking devices allowing us to locate ourselves (and others) in a rapidly shrinking world, technological developments are increasingly permeating every avenue of our lives. In terms of wildlife and its protection, the same is undoubtedly true. Whether such innovation is a good thing is far from certain, however, as emerging technologies provide an opportunity not only for the guardians of the wild but also to those that wish to deplete it for their own profit. As the fight against illegal wildlife trade intensifies, so the application of technology has been promoted strongly, to provide conservationists, wildlife managers and enforcement agencies the information they require to more effectively challenge wildlife decline. For a long time research has been undertaken on endangered species and their movements through the fitting of radio collars, a technique that has enabled scientists to better understand the habits and behaviour of a host of different animals and, in the example of wild tigers particularly, to aid in calculations as to their present abundance. As we have witnessed in India of late, however, techniques to estimate tiger numbers are hotly disputed as a host of rival techniques are proposed to best estimate the quantity of the big cats inhabiting the national estate of reserves and parks.

This has led, of late, to a situation in which a high profile study of the latest All-India tiger estimation has been challenged by the authorities and legal advice subsequently sought in order to push for a retraction of the criticisms of the processes adopted in the census. In short, the figures provided by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India are not believed by everyone. The information provided by one technological application are disputed by adherents of other approaches, leading to distrust and conflict among people and organisations that share the same overarching goal: to save tigers in the wild. This fracturing of the tiger conservation lobby in India has occurred at a time when threats to the persistence of tigers in the wild continue to intensify and such a threat to unity among their protectors is unlikely to be viewed negatively by those seeking to push the tiger closer to the precipice of extinction. It has also provided ammunition to critics of conservation orthodoxy to push for radical changes in the ways in which wildlife protection is practiced, calling into question the authority and effectiveness of trade bans in favour of legalised trade avenues informed by market economics. Here, the issue of tiger farms in China, of periodic sales of ivory stockpiles from Africa and even the development of synthetic rhino horn has emerged within the conservation armoury, further polarising the debate between proponents of strict enforcement and those advocating a free market response to species decline. While this debate may initially appear to be peripheral to discussions concerning the employment of new technology as a tool for conservation, a closer look at recent proposals reveals a significant emphasis on technological innovation in the fight to save the rhino.

As mentioned above, the bioengineering of synthetic rhino horn has emerged as a potential option in the rhino wars. A biotech company in the US has already developed artificial horn and is seeking to grow and promote ‘cruelty-free’ horns in an attempt to reduce poaching pressure in the wild. The idea here is to provide a credible alternative to the use of rhino products and, at the same time, to increase the supply of horn to reduce the value of the authentic article on the black market. This approach, however, conflicts with the current emphasis on demand reduction efforts and is viewed as simplistic and dangerous by many conservationists. Why? Firstly, any attempt to open a legal marketplace for currently outlawed wildlife products carries a significant threat of laundering potential.

A pair of Kenyan rhinoceros horns, circa May 1964  Sold for $74,750
A pair of Kenyan rhinoceros horns, circa May 1964 Sold for $74,750

Rhino horn as a product is supplied in a powder form and, as such, its synthetic and natural forms may be difficult to differentiate between, providing an avenue for traders to pass off illegally sourced products in newly legalised markets. Secondly, the existing ban on trade in rhinos and their derivatives can create a type of stigma in the marketplace whereby potential consumers are reluctant to purchase items deemed to contravene the law. There is a real fear that if trade becomes legalised in any form this will represent a tacit acceptance of the medical value of horn and therefore all forms of trade will become more socially acceptable, stimulating rather than reducing poaching.

This potential stimulation of demand is refuted by the CEO of the bioengineering company in question who points not only to the introduction of faux fur in the fashion industry and its role in limiting the use of natural fur garments, but also employs techno-speak to raise concerns surrounding blind adherence to what he sees as a failing conservation paradigm. Claiming that Conservation 1.0 has largely failed to achieve its lofty aims, he instead looks towards a new, technologically driven Conservation 2.0 including the development of his company’s synthetic rhino horn, replicated through the medium of 3D printing. For conservationists, long versed in resisting the commercialisation of conservation, this course of action represents a clear and present danger. It provides another example of economists and business people, unversed in the science of wildlife conservation, aggressively promoting free market solutions to what they view as a practice based on non-market interventions. In light of the uncertainties that underpin such courses of action and the difficulty in undertaking any empirical research to justify any move away from demand-reduction mechanisms towards a supply-led approach, opponents of Conservation 2.0 continue to invoke the precautionary principle.

While these debates are undoubtedly complicated and strongly contested, the use of social media in the fight for species survival, on the surface at least, appears to be more readily digestible. A headline in the Spring edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine caught my attention. ‘Can Facebook save British seahorses? It asked. Flicking to the requisite page I read an article that focused on the role of social media in kick starting conservation campaigns through such means as online petitions posted via Take Part. Quite Lo-tech I admit but, reading on, I became increasingly aware of the power of people in challenging and guiding the actions and decisions of a range of authorities and organisations in dealing with wildlife issues. After all, the story proceeds; we are voters and consumers, our voices all count. The starting point on any ladder of engagement is to create a constituency of interest and to translate this into concerted pressure to seek action and change. In this case, the lower rungs of the ladder comprise the mobilisation of support for any given issue, communicated through the signing of an online petition. It is from this point that pressure groups can ascend the ladder and use the accumulated support to persuade decision makers and business interests to adapt their activities to reflect the views of a significant segment of the population.

I remember years ago standing freezing on a winter day in London trying to persuade busy shoppers to add their name to a petition aimed at preventing a seal cull. Things don’t seem to change that much. I think I generated around 20 new signatures on that day and, delighted with my efforts, set off sniffling and sneezing towards home.

The cove: a petition to save Japan's Dolphins
The global reach of online petitions

A few weeks ago I added my name to an online petition to protest against, of all things, a seal cull. Simple, a few minutes tapping away on the iPad and my name joined tens of thousands of others across the globe all questioning the reason behind such a course of action. All in the comfort and warmth of my own home. Glancing back towards the article the opportunity provided by technology hit home, the vast potential of mobilising and channelling support for a campaign within a short timespan, reaching millions of people instantaneously proved difficult to ignore. This led me to add my support to range of causes I cared strongly about and, as a recent convert to social media via twitter, to engage with such issues by listening and conversing with like-minded individuals and institutions. Moreover, it provided the opportunity to share not only my concerns but also my own good news stories, often via the posting of photographs I had taken on recent visits to wildlife habitat.

A Rhino and her calf somewhere in Botswana
Somewhere in Botswana

What better than sharing a picture of a rhino and its calf unconcernedly grazing as I watched from a jeep somewhere in Botswana? I received a number of favourites and retweets and, energised through the interest generated, I accepted a request to give a presentation to work colleagues on ‘ecoterrorism’ and the emerging role of technology in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade. What is more, I was also persuaded to broaden my audience beyond the confines of our university and embarked upon a live streaming of the presentation via Periscope, another new innovation for me to grapple with.

Before getting started, however, the research stage beckoned. If I was to talk to so many people it goes without question that I needed to be confident of my knowledge of the issues and, through a combination of books, journals and web-based material, I updated myself on the latest themes and debates. And it was here that the alarm bells in my mind started ringing. Could media like Facebook, twitter and Instagram actually be aiding poaching networks in their pursuit of endangered wildlife? Could my posting of rhino photos inadvertently lead to their destruction?

Understanding the unintended effects of technology
Understanding the unintended effects of technology

The answer it seemed was a categorical yes. For unbeknown to myself and doubtless countless other wildlife enthusiasts, the devices that provide us with immediate digital images, and enable us to disseminate these photographs widely, contain a geo-location mechanism that allow others to ascertain the time, date and location of the image posted. The necessity to disable the geotag function on electronic devices may therefore of critical importance before any sharing of images on social media, just another example of the unforeseen consequences of technology.

Just like the use of radio collars on tigers in India for the purposes of tracking them to facilitate more effective protection, poachers it seems may be collecting and collating data from tourists posting their images on social media and using these to track wildlife movement and behaviour for more nefarious purposes. Just as information equates to power in the conservation fight against poachers so too does it present an advantage to the poaching networks themselves who, historically, have tended to adapt and evolve their operations more quickly than the protectors of wildlife.

Remaining with the issue of poaching and enforcement, another widely promoted use of innovation surrounds that of drone technology. Already utilised in a variety of scenarios by wildlife managers and conservationists to monitor wildlife population movements, drone deployment is increasingly being viewed as an important weapon in the fight against poachers. Just recently, an article appeared in the Bloomberg press about an offer from a private sector foundation in Tanzania to provide and deploy drones over the territory of the Selous Game Reserve in an attempt to support anti-poaching measures. On the surface, the benefits of such an approach are obvious although the potential problems associated with the increasing availability of such technology are perhaps less appreciated. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can be used to spot suspected poachers or poaching cells, providing information to officials to better coordinate more speedy deployment of rapid response units. This provides obvious benefits in the fight against illegal wildlife trade, yet it is the increasing ubiquity of drones that provides a note of caution. In this technological age, well-funded poaching networks are also in a position to employ their own drones to monitor not only the location of wildlife but also to ascertain the whereabouts of anti-poaching units, creating a ‘cat and mouse’ situation in which stalemate becomes the most likely outcome. Add into this mix the presence of tourism companies seeking to provide guaranteed sightings for their increasingly demanding clientele and without regulation the situation may become even more complicated, culminating in a question of ‘whose drone is it anyway?’

Undoubtedly, new technology may provide significant benefits for wildlife conservation but, equally, it can also introduce new challenges. Some technology may prove to be more palatable than others and to some conservationists who harbour a deeply-entrenched distrust of what they consider to be private sector profiteers, such ingress may be equated to a creeping commercialisation of wildlife protection. Equally, to many within the commercial sector that view conservation as a potentially profitable enterprise that is worth investment, blanket reluctance to embrace the public sector represents a lost opportunity. Here it not merely a choice between Conservation 1.0 and 2.0 but rather the emergence of an effective and adaptive approach that is most likely to respond to burgeoning poaching pressures. Perhaps the best answer to the question posed by technology and conservation is to proceed with caution and to provide the levels of regulation required to ensure that innovation works for, rather than against wildlife protection. To achieve this technology must work in concert with existing conservation activity and not merely seek to dismantle long standing security and enforcement efforts.

The last Northern White Rhino requires 24/7 armed guards.
The last Northern White Rhino requires 24/7 armed guards. Photo by Brent Stinton

I would like to end this discussion with a recent quote attributed to the President of Botswana, Ian Khama (by Paula Kahumbu via twitter): “God will judge poachers. It’s my job to arrange the meeting”. What remains to be seen is the contribution of technology in facilitating such an audience.