Wildlife conservation goes hi-tech to aid efficiency

Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife and Energy Programme project manager Matt Pretorius says technology won’t replace humans in conservation but will enable people to do more. | Supplied

Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife and Energy Programme project manager Matt Pretorius says technology won’t replace humans in conservation but will enable people to do more. | Supplied

Published Mar 2, 2024


Durban — The impact of technology on conservation comes under the spotlight during Sunday’s global celebration of World Wildlife Day with the theme People and Planet: Exploring Digital Innovation in Wildlife Conservation.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust told the Independent on Saturday that it used various forms of technology in its conservation and habitat restoration projects. These included GPS tracking and drones, particularly in tracking birds of prey and preventing the collision of birds with power lines, while environmental DNA (eDNA) was successfully used to rediscover the “elusive golden mole” on the West Coast last year.

Matt Pretorius, project manager of the Wildlife and Energy Programme at The Endangered Wildlife Trust, said that people who worked in conservation were generally highly skilled individuals who had been trained over many years to gain their wildlife knowledge and experience.

“What employers in the sector are looking for now is people that also have the skills to use this technology. And so, you’re not going to be replaced as a conservation worker by AI or technology per se, but you need to be current and to be employable in the sector.”

He said in conservation, technology was mainly used for monitoring and research.

“We at the Endangered Wildlife Trust focus a lot on endangered or threatened species. Technology helps us to sort of keep track of individual animals, but also to be able to do monitoring in the sense of doing counts of wild animals, or specific counts of specific species that are maybe breeding in colonies.”

He said on the research side drones, GPS tracking technologies and AI were commonly used as well as environmental DNA (eDNA).

“Researchers have been placing tracking devices on wild animals, be it mammals, birds, reptiles, pretty much anything that you can think of, for decades. It started off being radio tracking technology that you would place on an animal. You would look for that signal, that ping that comes through to the receiver when you’re close enough to the animal that’s been fitted with a radio tracking device.

“Then a couple of decades ago, we started placing GPS tracking devices on animals.”

He said initially the weight of the devices limited its use because it had to be 5% or less of the animal’s body mass and initially they were very heavy and bulky.

“Where we’re sitting now is that we have GPS trackers that are light enough to place on tiny birds. Some of these birds, particularly shorebirds, make some of the most significant migrations within the animal kingdom.”

Conservationists were also using GPS technology to protect animals from South Africa’s burgeoning renewable energy sector by identifying areas that were “highly sensitive”.

“When we’re talking about things like birds, particularly large threatened bird species like some of your eagles, vultures, this sort of sensitivity mapping becomes very, critical, especially in light of the energy development in South Africa where everyone’s pushing to roll out more and more renewable energy. For these developers to have the least amount of impact on some of these threatened bird species, we can use this GPS tracking technology to be able to indicate where sensitive areas are that they should try to avoid. It could be birds that get electrocuted on power lines, collide with power lines, and they also get struck by wind turbines,” said Pretorius.

The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) said this year’s World Wildlife Day highlighted how technologies and services could drive wildlife conservation and human-wildlife coexistence in an increasingly connected world.

“Billions of people in developed and developing nations benefit from wild plants and animal species for food, energy, materials, medicine, recreation and many other vital contributions to human well-being. The increasing global biodiversity crisis, with a million species of plants and animals facing extinction, threatens these essential eco-services,” the NSTF said in a statement.

It said that innovative digital technologies made research, communication, tracking, DNA analysis and many other aspects of wildlife conservation more efficient and accurate.

“The technologies include artificial intelligence (AI)-powered solutions such as apps that help distinguish the different types of flora and fauna in the same species, advanced drones roaming large areas to track and locate wildlife and breeding or nesting sites, and Earth observation through satellite technology. There are advanced tracking systems, and real-time data analytics, allowing conservationists to identify, monitor, track and ultimately preserve wildlife,” it said.

Independent on Saturday