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Applications of Technology in the Conservation and Counter-Conservation World

WRITTEN BY AFRICAT VOLUNTEER, OLIVIA YETMAN.

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Technology has come a long way over the last couple of decades; appearing to progress at an ever increasing rate, it is hard to keep abreast of the latest advances in phones, laptops, cameras or TVs. Not only are new products being developed, the application of these products in a growing number of fields and scenarios is escalating, with surprising uses and innovative problem solving visible in perhaps unlikely places. Within the conservation sphere, certain technologies have enabled protection to become much more efficient and accessible. Using GPS data, geographical information systems (GIS) and motion-sensitive cameras (amongst other things) effective methods of tracking, monitoring and data analysis are now used which save on time, man power and therefore money.

Uses in Conservation

GPS

GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, is now commonplace in many peoples’ everyday lives; smartphone map applications use GPS, as do car sat-navs. GPS has multiple applications in the conservation field; one is in a GPS collar. When fitted to an animal, its location can be determined swiftly and accurately; some collars can send out position data intermittently over a period of several months, providing a map of where the animal has travelled. This is much more convenient than tracking by radio collar, as it takes much less time to find the animal and is vastly more accurate.

A hand held GPS device can also be used to plot the route of a patrol, and the position of anything that is noticed on the patrol. Combined with a GIS, this can result in the creation of road maps, by plotting the route followed by a car, or the locations of any security breaches, repairs to be carried out or animal sightings.

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GIS

A good example of a GIS is Google Earth. With the full version, it is possible to apply layers to an area of the globe, showing for example tectonic activity. This is what a GIS does – manages and analyses information and displays it in useful ways- often on a map. This makes spatial data much clearer and easier to work with.

Using GPS and GIS can also allow for more effective security measures, as the whereabouts of possible targets is known.

 

GPS and Sonar

Fishing boats can track shoals of fish using powerful sonar systems, enabling high yields with less travelling around. However, fishing is not allowed in many protected areas- for example, breeding grounds or marine conservation areas. GPS devices onboard allow the appropriate authorities to confirm that fishing fleets avoid these protected areas, and apprehend anybody who subverts the rules.

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Remote Control and Web Cams

When attempting to trap an animal, for medical, research or any other purpose, a traditional box trap means that it is very easy for the wrong animal to be caught, causing this animal unnecessary stress. A patrol also needs to be sent out to check the box trap. However, with a combination of a camera in the trap streaming live to a computer, and a door on the box which can be remote controlled from the same computer, when the correct individual is seen entering the trap, the door can be closed instantly and the animal picked up. This reduces the time needed to patrol the site of the trap, and the time for which the animal is distressed by their captivity. The comparative practicality of this system has enabled AfriCat to capture individuals within the reserve with much more ease since it was installed here in 2011.

Live webcam feed or motion-sensitive cameras can also be used to identify individual animals, gauge the approximate number of animals in an area, and of course aid security. Cameras at the water holes in the Okonjima Nature Reserve are used to aid the annual game count and monitor carnivore movement. At AfriCat, live webcam feed assists us during the 24 hour monitoring of an injured carnivore, post anaesthetic. Wild carnivores that need to stay wild during temporary captivity, are also closely monitored by motion-sensitive cameras, reducing human interference which could lead to habituation.

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Drones

Remote controlled or pre-programmed surveillance drones can be used to search for something over a large area such as a reserve. Able to fly low, and importantly for dealing with wildlife, quietly, they can scan large areas much faster and more thoroughly than a person, sending back video information.

 

The Internet and Social Media

In terms of awareness, social media such as Twitter have become powerful communicators. Conservation causes are exposed to a larger audience, and supporting these causes has been made easier- petitions can be signed online in a few minutes, and donations can be made via PayPal or a similar service in equally as short a time, making conservation more accessible to the public.
Donate online to AfriCat

AfriCat’s Facebook page is an easy and more personal way for supporters and interested parties to keep abreast of news almost daily, and to interact with those who are directly involved by asking questions or leaving comments which can be responded to quickly by somebody who can give a precise and up-to-date answer.

Facebook - The AfriCat Foundation
Facebook Groups - AfriCat Namibia

 

Uses Against Conservation

In many cases conservation is required due to some people actively trying to obliterate a species or habitat, for one reason or another; and whilst GPS tracking, remote controls and live video streaming have made conserving an area much easier, in the wrong hands their use can be damaging. Through acquiring similar equipment or computer hacking, many of the beneficial applications of the technologies outlined above can be reversed, a practise with which all at AfriCat strongly disagree.

Poachers can buy a surveillance drone just as easily as any conservation group; and carefully collected GPS data can be 'stolen' and used to track down targets for destruction.

Although the movements of fishing boats are monitored via GPS, often fishermen wishing to exploit a protected area can either switch off the device, or manipulate it to emit a false position reading.

 

Remote Control Hunting

In some cases, the same technology is used for a different purpose, such as remote controls. Remote hunting websites began to appear in 2005, when a Texan set up a webcam and a concealed shotgun which could be fired with the click of a mouse. Although they were swiftly made illegal in many US states, the practice still exists for those who know how to access it. The user logs on, enters their credit card details and chooses a time slot in which to 'hunt'. When they sign in again at this time, they watch live webcam feed of a small plot of land. The animal they will soon shoot is most likely very confined so is certain to cross the line of fire. When it does, and they click to fire the gun, it is unlikely that their own shot will kill the animal outright. In this instance, staff on the farm are required to finish the victim off. The 'hunter' is then sent a trophy in the post.

Proponents of online hunting claim that it is important for disabled hunters, or those who are abroad (perhaps in the armed forces) and wish to send the meat to their families. However, the lack of any skill required, low probability of a clean death and very high probability of something being shot mark it out as a hugely unethical practice.

 

Counteracting Hostile Use of Technology (Misuse)

Like any technological development, people can use these apparatus and methods in a positive way or in an aggressive or hostile manner. The same technologies that assist in tracking wildlife over large areas can be tools to better exploit natural habitats or target species.

When a conservation group wishes to benefit from the systems above, the possibility of hacking or misuse is a very real threat, raising new challenges. Resources may need to be diverted away from the central aim of the group (i.e. protecting a species or habitat) to defending their systems from infiltration. However, as using many of the above methods reduces the manpower, time and eventually monetary resources required this should be in most cases an acceptable sacrifice.

Sometimes technology can be used to strike back at those exploiting the natural world. Illegal loggers and miners in the Amazon rain forest have used GPS technology to navigate virgin rain forest, but now the native people are combating the illegal mining and logging which is wiping out their ancestral homes. Indian tribes are learning to use GPS and Google Earth to monitor illegal activities, with the help of the Amazon Conservation Team and the local governments. The people of these tribes have an extensive inherited knowledge of the environment and geography of the rainforest which makes them effective guardians. Along with improved high-resolution satellite images of the area, the work of the locals is highlighting the incidence of illegal activity and allowing for action to be taken sooner.

 

The Future

AfriCat will continue to bring in new methods and updated technologies, aiding its efforts to protect the carnivores of Namibia. However as technology develops, so will its uses for and against conservation. If used correctly, these technologies have the potential to remove the ability to carry out poaching, logging or mining for groups who wish to do so. However the motives for the illegal exploitation of the natural world remain the same; therefore, in the long term efforts need to be made to address these root causes. Stamping out the origin of these activities, as well as preventing them from occurring, is the only way to cease them from happening.

 

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