By Dr. Nirmal Jivan Shah
“If we want solutions from nature then we need a next-generation overhaul of biodiversity conservation”, says Dr. Nirmal Jivan Shah on the International Day of Biodiversity. The theme this year is “Our Solutions are in Nature”, and as the world reels from the impacts of the pandemic Shah says that this is an opportune time to map the content of this next-gen conservation.
Who would have thought that a microscopic bit of biodiversity would have turned our lives upside down? Conservation, my profession and my passion, is imploding. The traditional sources of funding and other kinds of support have dried out. These include the collapse of tourism which many conservation organizations depend on heavily, sharp and rapid decline in the value of trust funds and investments, uncertainty about the continuity of bilateral and multilateral donor funding, and default by governments many of whom in Africa are already heavily indebted. We don’t have money to keep staff or to buy equipment and materials. Volunteers, consultants and international researchers will have difficulty in moving around because of new rules and concerns. We need novel ways of doing conservation so we can continue to benefit from nature’s solutions.
Conservationists must look for innovative kinds of support, learn many new things and do more with less. The global megatrend is disruptive technologies and this is probably the future of conservation as well. The Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, blockchain and cryptocurrencies should play key roles in conservation. Traditional conservation will need to leapfrog into what I am calling “e-conservation”.
Much of fieldwork can be automated through new tech
Working from home is helped by apps like Zoom. But this is just the beginning. There will be more interactive, virtual programs that will make remote working more acceptable and productive. This will hasten the demise of many physical meetings; we will save on time and budget, shrink our carbon footprint, and finally get the attention of globe-trotting government officials who will have to stay in their home country and work with us.
Money, or rather money as we know it, will be scarce. Cryptocurrency will find enormous traction. China is shaping to be the first major economy to launch digital money. Facebook and others are also working on their own digital coins. The IUCN, Porini Foundation and Nature Seychelles conservation cryptocurrency offer some years ago was too far ahead of its time and needs to be relaunched. There is an urgency for conservation organizations and financial institutions to work together to plot out ways to use cryptocurrency.
Cryptocurrency will find enormous traction
Blockchain is a generic instrument that can be used for a multiplicity of purposes in conservation. It will be a keystone in any new conservation architecture. A few examples where blockchain is being used in conservation are tracing fish from bait to plate to manage sustainable fisheries, donors being assured that their funding goes corruption-free to the intended programs or communities, tracing illegal dumping, crowdfunding reforestation, putting in pace smart, tamper-proof contracts, and assuring carbon offset programs.
As tourism to our protected areas and sites disappear can we turn to live video streaming and ask people to pay for that? WildEarth safariLIVE does that by streaming live, unscripted safaris with an expert game ranger host in a vehicle, on foot and using drones, balloons, rovers and remote cams. At some point can we envisage our avatars strolling with the game ranger through a live stream in a national park? We need to be able to monetize these experiences so we can reap benefits.
What will happen to communication, public awareness and education as talent is whittled down? Bots can do some of the job as bots are already chatting with us on apps, leaving comments on social media posts and writing articles for newspapers and media outlets. Digital technologies are predicted to play greater and greater roles in e-learning and transfer of knowledge. Gaming can be employed to draw people into conservation and even change behaviors. The possibilities to engage children and parents using digital tech are endless.
Inevitably, tech will reduce the workload and expenses as has happened in commerce and industry. Tracking devices and other equipment can be made cheaply by using 3-D printing. Drone swarms can surveil our sites and visual and acoustic monitors can inform us of illegal activity. Satellites are apprising us of illegal fishing in our Exclusive Economic Zones. A small, portable lab called GENE is able to extract, amplify and sequence DNA even in the most remote field conditions; nanopore sequencing can enable the analysis of any living things, by anyone, in any environment. DNA barcoding helps track the illegal wildlife and fisheries trade. Data collection tools like CyberTracker generate and access big data. Citizen science can be made more effective by using apps like iNaturalist and WikiAves that employ algorithms to recognize species.
Electronic monitoring uses technology to collect timely and verifiable catch information (Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts)
Some tech companies are working with conservationists - Rainforest Connection (RFCx) is deploying Huawei cloud AI and upcycled Huawei smartphones to detect the sounds of spider monkeys and chainsaws used for illegal logging. A commonality among many of the tools is that they were originally developed for other purposes. Conservationists must now move from being tech consumers to tech drivers and innovators - new tools must be developed for the new needs of conservation.
Upcycled, Solar-powered Huawei phones run autonomously to cover 3 km2 of rainforest and run 24/7 for two years (Image: Huawei)
This crisis is a red alert for the conservation of biodiversity. Yet, we see environment authorities caught in an inexplicable paralysis. Our own environment Ministry in Seychelles has still not provided a strategy or even assistance to its biodiversity conservation partners for these changed times, despite being asked – judging from social media senior officials are nostalgic about international conferences instead of visioning a fresh road map. Things are not going to work themselves out as we watch. We need donors to quickly make the initial investments to catalyze the transition. We need global conservation organizations to bring donor, tech and conservation communities together so the appropriate setup and tools are developed. We need institutions and people to be capacity-built to be able to utilize new tech and help develop e-conservation. If such actions don’t occur fast enough, I predict that biodiversity conservation institutions and programs will end up in the ICU or worse. Perhaps that’s what some want?