Networking Nature: How Technology Is Transforming Conservation

Jon Hoekstra. Foreign Affairs. Volume 93, Issue 2. March/April 2014.

Conservation is for the first time beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago. We can now monitor entire ecosystems-think of the Amazon rainforest-in nearly real time, using remote sensors to map their three-dimensional structures; satellite communications to follow elusive creatures, such as the jaguar and the puma; and smartphones to report illegal logging.

Such innovations are revolutionizing conservation in two key ways: first, by revealing the state of the world in unprecedented detail and, second, by making available more data to more people in more places. Like most technologies, these carry serious, although manageable, risks: in the hands of poachers, location-tracking devices could prove devastating to the endangered animals they hunt. Yet on balance, technological innovation gives new hope for averting the planet’s environmental collapse and reversing its accelerating rates of habitat loss, animal extinction, and climate change.

Cell Phones for Elephants

In 2009, I visited the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in northern Kenya. A cattle ranch turned rhinoceros and elephant preserve, Lewa has become a model for African conservation, demonstrating how the tourism that wildlife attracts can benefit neighboring communities, providing them with employment and business opportunities. When I arrived at camp, I was surprised-and a little dismayed-to discover that my iPhone displayed five full service bars. So much for a remote wilderness experience, I thought. But those bars make Lewa’s groundbreaking work possible.

More than a decade earlier, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who founded the organization Save the Elephants, had pioneered the use of GPS and satellite communications to study the movements of elephants. At Lewa, Douglas-Hamilton outfitted elephants with tracking collars that connect to the Safaricom mobile network as easily as my cell phone did. These connections allow Lewa’s researchers to effectively call the tracking collars of the conservancy’s elephants and download their location data on demand, all the while plotting their migration between Lewa and the forests flanking Mount Kenya.

Today, Lewa uses the collars for more than research, piloting a program to reduce human-elephant conflict that results when elephants raid crops and to provide safer passage for elephants when they move through agricultural and other settled areas. Using accumulated data on elephant migration routes, the conservancy identified and protected ideal migration corridors. It even constructed a highway underpass to reduce the risk of elephants colliding with cars. Lewa also straps tracking collars on problem elephants with a history of raiding crops. If one of the elephants approaches a farm or village, its collar sends a text message to wildlife rangers, who can then quickly locate the animal and move it away in order to prevent any damage. True to their reputation for intelligence, the elephants quickly learn to mind such virtual fences and keep clear of farms.

The Lewa project shows how a relatively simple, low-cost tracking device can transform wildlife conservation. Using data from such devices, conservationists can shape protected areas around predictable migratory patterns-avoiding needless, often fatal confrontations between endangered species and human civilization. For example, Magellanic penguins that forage along the coast of Argentina have long been vulnerable to running into oil when they swim through shipping lanes. Once covered in oil, most penguins struggle to maintain their body temperature and die of hypothermia, and the survivors suffer from health and reproductive problems. In the mid-1990s, P. Dee Boersma, one of the world’s foremost authorities on penguin conservation, discovered that Argentina’s oil pollution was killing as many as 40,000 penguins each year. She used GPS tracking devices, at a time when the technology was on the cutting edge and costly, to document where the birds were foraging. She then worked with Argentinian authorities to move the shipping lanes further offshore, dramatically reducing a mortality rate that could have easily led to the penguins’ extinction.

Tracking collars such as those used on Lewa’s elephants or the Magellanic penguins can cost as much as $5,000 each. But Eric Dinerstein, a leading scientist at World Wildlife Fund, has collaborated with engineers at a cell-phone company to make a gps tracking device that can be manufactured for less than $300. The use of stronger and smaller components has also made it possible to tag and track a wider variety of species, from jaguars in dense jungle to albatross soaring over the open ocean.

Counting By Trees

The tropical forests of the Amazon and the Congo are among the last of the planet’s vast wildernesses. They are menageries of innumerable species. And they act as the planet’s lungs, inhaling carbon dioxide-an overabundance of which causes climate change-and exhaling oxygen. For this reason, scientists know that forest conservation is an immediate and effective strategy for slowing climate change. Estimates suggest that the cutting and burning of tropical forests accounts for around ten percent of the carbon emissions that are heating the climate.

In 2005, the un Framework Convention on Climate Change created Redd+, a program to compensate developing countries that reduce their overall carbon emissions through forest conservation. The system recognizes only huge-scale conservation achievements that can be measured and verified-often ten million acres or more. Hundreds of millions of donor dollars are now earmarked for countries that can estimate the avoided carbon emissions across vast areas with high levels of mathematical rigor. But such schemes have consistently run into one big technical stumbling block: it has been difficult to precisely measure, report, and verify the emissions-reduction benefits of variable stretches of forest. Early, labor-intensive methods of measuring a forest’s capacity to store carbon relied on satellite imagery to measure the overall area and ground surveys to size up individual trees in sample plots. The process was costly, and the accuracy of the estimates varied.

Scientists are now using remote sensors, laser-imaging technologies, and advanced statistical algorithms to see both the forest and the trees at the same time and in extraordinary detail-right down to the chemical signatures of individual trees. As their costs decline and their precision increases, these forest-scanning methods could unlock billions of dollars for innovative conservation programs that can prove their carbon, social, biodiversity, and even financial values.

Greg Asner, an ecologist at Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science, is the leading pioneer of such forest-surveillance systems. His most recent project builds on a technology called “light detection and ranging” (lidar). Mounted on a small airplane, the system beams powerful lasers through tree canopies to the forest floor, which bounce back carrying highly detailed data about the structure of the forest. Asner’s plane also carries a separate set of hyperspectral sensors that can recognize a range of seemingly invisible characteristics, including a tree’s photosynthetic pigments, its basic structural compounds, and even the water content of its leaves. Researchers can use this data not only to estimate carbon storage capacities but also to analyze forest diversity and assess tree health. With a single airplane, these paired technologies can scan over 120,000 acres, or as many as 50 million trees, in a single day. And the equipment is so sophisticated that it can distinguish among 200 different tree species. Scientists are already integrating information gathered by the lidar system with national forest inventories in Nepal, Panama, Thailand, and dozens of other countries to establish their forests’ base lines of carbon storage. Diplomats at the United Nations and the World Bank recently agreed on the key rules for estimating the carbon storage capacity of individual forests, anticipating a coming wave of climate-mitigation finance.

Researchers are also making use of high-resolution satellite imagery. In 2012, the biologist Michelle LaRue reported the findings of her satellite-based census of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Using highresolution images collected by the QuickBird satellite, LaRue was able to count individual birds over huge areas of ice. Her study, the first of its kind, discovered seven previously unknown colonies and estimated the global population of emperor penguins at nearly 600,000 individuals-nearly 50 percent greater than previous estimates compiled from various ground-based observations of accessible penguin colonies. More accurate population assessments such as these will enable conservationists to verify whether conservation efforts are succeeding and target scarce resources toward the species in the greatest danger.

In a similar vein, the geologist John Amos, who founded the activist organization SkyTruth, now uses satellite imagery and digital mapping to document the environmental impact of mining, oil and gas development, and illegal fishing. He compiles series of satellite images of a single area to create animated visualizations of changes to the landscape over time. His findings have helped quantify the damage done by mountaintop removal, mining, and fracking. Amos’ analysis of satellite imagery of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 accurately estimated that the spill was far larger than official reports initially claimed. And advanced imaging technologies are now enabling SkyTruth to detect and document illegal fishing activity in remote waters, which will aid enforcement efforts.

Capital Investments

Humanity’s survival depends on the planet’s stores of natural resources: its fish, water, wood, minerals, and arable land. But the replenishment of these goods depends on the world’s natural capital: its forests, grasslands, topsoil, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Increases in agricultural productivity and the expansion of critical infrastructure have improved the lives of billions of people but have left this natural capital dangerously depleted. As the overall demand for goods and services has continued to grow, human consumption of natural resources has become unsustainable. Since the mid- 1970s, people have been consuming more resources than the world’s natural capital can replenish and producing more pollution than it can absorb. In 2010, the nonprofit organization the Global Footprint Network calculated that humanity now requires roughly 1.5 earths to sustain its current level of consumption each year. Put another way, humanity now uses up a year’s supply of the earth’s natural resources by mid-August. After that, it is drawing down against the future capacity of natural capital.

The Natural Capital Project, a joint venture of World Wildlife Fund, Stanford University, the Nature Conservancy, and the University of Minnesota, has generated the technology needed to manage natural capital and predict how changes in land management, infrastructure, and resource use will affect levels of water, timber, and fish, as well as natural defenses against floods and erosion. The project’s flagship technology is an open-source software package called Invest, which uses relatively simple data inputs to produce maps, trend lines, and balance sheets that measure natural capital. These analyses can inform land-use, development, and conservation decisions by making the potential tradeoffs of various options clearer. Invest calculates and visualizes how development choices will affect natural capital and, with it, the flows of goods and services to people from the environment.

Today, the Chinese government is using Invest to establish a national network of “ecosystem function conservation areas” that will balance the potential environmental toll of development with targeted conservation projects. China plans to use the software to restrict development in designated areas that will cover about 25 percent of the country. Invest is enabling Beijing to identify which areas can provide the biggest returns in natural capital-helping it avoid erosion, conserve water resources, prevent desertification, and protect biodiversity.

In 2011, World Wildlife Fund and the Indonesian government used the software to quantify the impact of different land-use and development scenarios on the forest ecosystems of Sumatra. Their studies compared the costs and benefits of alternative development plans by taking into account the carbon storage potential of local forests, the habitat for tigers, and the fresh water supply. Following this study, the Millennium Challenge Corporation recommended that Invest be used to guide $332 million in environmental investments under a $600 million U.S.-Indonesian compact.

The private sector is using similar software, with many companies recognizing that their long-term profitability hinges on a sustainable supply of water, agricultural commodities, and other renewable resources that form the bases of their supply chains. For example, Coca- Cola and World Wildlife Fund recently renewed a strategic partnership that includes goals for incorporating natural-capital considerations into how Coca-Cola uses water and sources the commodities in its products. A number of considerations informed these goals, including data collected to better understand how Coca-Cola uses water throughout its supply chain and manufacturing processes. To date, Coca-Cola has improved its system wide water efficiency by more than 21 percent, in addition to setting a goal to sustainably source key agricultural ingredients, such as cane sugar, corn syrup, and palm oil, by 2020. One of the company’s first major steps toward sustainable sourcing was its work in helping create Bonsucro, which sets global standards for sustainable sugar-cane production. In 2011, a sugar mill in São Paulo, Brazil, became the first to achieve Bonsucro certification, and Coca-Cola was the first buyer of the mill’s certified sugar.

Filling Holes

Biotechnology may have the most far-reaching and controversial implications for conservation. De-extinction-the notion that extinct species could be reconstituted from remnants of their DNA-has garnered significant media attention in recent years, as genetic sequencing and cloning technologies have made such a lofty goal appear ever more plausible. To paraphrase the author Stewart Brand, whose Revive & Restore initiative is working to bring back the passenger pigeon, extinction punches holes in the fabric of nature; de-extinction creates the opportunity to fill those holes, restoring biodiversity and making ecosystems more resilient.

Two of the most talked-about candidates for revival are the thylacine, a marsupial tiger that was hunted to extinction in Tasmania in the 1930s, and the North American passenger pigeon, which was once the world’s most abundant species but disappeared due to excessive hunting and the clearing of its forest habitat. Scientists have already brought back an odd species of mouth-brooding frog in Australia that swallows its own eggs and regurgitates its offspring when they hatch. Now, scientists could reconstitute many more species by replacing the DNA of closely related creatures with DNA from extinct species.

But reconstituting some extinct species is only the beginning. Synthetic biology is an emerging discipline that applies the tenets of engineering to modify, redesign, and even construct bacteria for specific purposes. Biologists are using advanced techniques in genetic sequencing and bioengineering to rewrite genetic code, manipulate the fundamental building blocks of biological functions, and assemble them within microbes that behave like tiny machines. Sophisticated equipment that was once available only to professional researchers in well-funded laboratories is now accessible to entrepreneurs in garage start-ups and to do-it-yourself hobbyists in community laboratories. This accessibility is rapidly accelerating the pace of innovation and expanding the scope of potential applications.

Synthetic biology could radically expand the possibilities for conservation. Consider, for example, the problem of desertification and land degradation. Every year, about 30 million acres of land succumb to desertification, rendering that land less productive for farming and threatening biodiversity. Around the world, as many as 5.4 billion acres of land-an area larger than the size of South America-have been degraded by land clearing, soil erosion, or unsustainable farming practices. Rehabilitating that land could help farmers meet rising food demands and could restore natural habitats. But it takes far longer to naturally revive soils and regrow natural vegetation than it takes to destroy them-and the planet cannot afford to wait.

Synthetic biologists are already seeking a faster solution. As part of the 2011 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, Christopher Schoene, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry at Imperial College London, came up with a way to use synthetic biology to accelerate the rehabilitation of damaged lands. Working with a small group of fellow students, Schoene designed a project to engineer microbes that could find plant roots and stimulate their growth to improve their absorption of water and essential nutrients. If such advances progress past the proof-of-concept stage, they could slow or counteract land degradation, since roots hold soil in place.

Of course, many important questions about the risks of such technologies have yet to be answered. Engineered microbes could have many negative impacts on natural organisms outside the laboratory. They could evolve such that their intended functions diminish or adapt in ways that pose unintended consequences. Nevertheless, the fundamental technologies are coming into place. Synthetic biology, as it advances, could be used to supercharge nature, helping it bounce back faster and stay stronger in the face of human pressures.

Risky Business

Excitement about the possibilities of technology must be tempered by a recognition of their risks. For example, an explosion of wildlife crime in Africa is resulting in the slaughter of hundreds of rhinoceros for their horns and thousands of elephants for their tusks. Technology is helping conservationists defend against the poachers through improved monitoring and surveillance. But the information that conservationists are using for good could present a significant risk if it fell into criminal hands. Data security thus becomes as important as physical security in the bush.

Biotechnology applications could have any number of unintended consequences. Efforts to revive extinct species are controversial because they could create a moral hazard, making extinction risks seem less urgent. Some critics of biotechnology warn of a Jurassic Park scenario, in which a genetically engineered organism escapes from the lab and wreaks ecological havoc in the natural world. Such a fear is not unjustified given the economic and ecological damage invasive species have caused when introduced in places where they have few competitors or predators. Costly examples include the zebra mussel, which clogs water intakes in the Great Lakes, and the chestnut blight that nearly wiped out the American chestnut tree at the turn of the century. Synthetically engineered genes could also spread from modified plants or bacteria to other species, resulting in unexpected consequences: such a gene transfer is one of the primary mechanisms behind the rapid spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria. Current evidence suggests that so-called horizontal gene transfers among genetically modified organisms are infrequent. Nonetheless, bioengineers will need to adopt safety measures to manage and diminish such risks. And scientists need to deepen their understanding of the ecology of engineered organisms and how they interact with other species in the environment.

Some of the most promising applications of technology to conservation may also be limited by a lack of basic infrastructure. Although I enjoyed excellent cell-phone connectivity in northern Kenya, many of the world’s most important natural areas remain wild and off the grid. That means technologies that rely on connections to telecommunications and power networks won’t work there-at least until those networks expand. The proliferation of more affordable satellite uplinks, microcell towers, and solar power has the potential to help overcome such limitations.

At the end of the day, however, technology is merely a tool- one that can help but also do harm. To maximize its potential benefits, conservationists and technologists will need to come together to determine how technology should and should not be used. But as rising populations and surging consumer demand stress the planet’s ability to sustain vital resources, humanity needs all the help it can get. Technology may not be a panacea for the world’s many environmental ills, but it could still help tip the balance toward a sustainable future.