Climate change and human interference have had a largely negative impact on the environment and animal populations — but technology is playing a growing role in protecting the planet and its wildlife.
Animal populations have decreased significantly in the last 50 years, with the WWF’s Living Planet report indicating that populations have shrunk by a shocking 68% since 1970.
This wildlife decline is driven by human activities such as deforestation and the destruction of other important ecosystems. Another contributing factor to the decrease of animal populations is poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, which has reportedly seen an increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate change is also a large factor in the loss of biodiversity and changes to ecosystems, with global warming contributing to extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, floods, and other threats to the natural environment.
With these persistent threats to ecosystems and the lives of animals, innovative solutions have been necessary to track living species and keep an eye on, and help alleviate, environmental changes.
Here are just a few fascinating ways that technology is being used to help protect the planet, ecosystems, and wildlife.
1. Satellites to track endangered wildlife
Conservation scientists have recently started using satellite imagery to keep track of elephants.
Elephant populations in parts of Africa are continuously decreasing, classifying them as vulnerable. Meanwhile the Asian elephant population has dropped by 50% over the last three generations and today the animal is considered endangered.
Scientists have begun by tracking elephants in Africa and are aiming to use satellite technology to track threatened elephant populations internationally.
According to the BBC, the images come from an Earth-observation satellite that orbits 600 km (372 miles) above the planet's surface.
This technology can capture up to 5,000 sq km of elephant habitat on a single clear day.
Machine learning — a form of artificial intelligence that uses algorithms to form an analysis — is then used to count the number of elephants visible in the satellite pictures.
Dr. Olga Isupova, an expert on artificial intelligence from the University of Bath, in the UK, explained the tracking process.
"We just present examples to the algorithm and tell it, 'This is an elephant, this is not an elephant,'" she said. "By doing this, we can train the machine to recognize small details that we wouldn't be able to pick up with the naked eye."
This technology can vastly improve manual tracking systems used to conserve endangered wildlife populations.
2. Anti-poaching transmitters
These are devices that can be fitted on a collar or directly onto an animal in danger from poaching. They monitor an animal’s movements through a sensor and track their location.
These transmitters — which are being used to monitor rhinos and other endangered animals in most African conservations — can send real-time information on the whereabouts of an animal, and can even sense when they are in distress.
The movement sensor will even trigger an alarm if an animal is in physical distress and in the case of rhinos, can detect if its horn is in danger of being severed by poachers.
3. Artificial intelligence to track wildfires and water loss
Wildfires are a danger to ecosystems, cause a loss of vegetation, and emit large amounts of air pollution whilst water loss is devastating for wildlife.
A US-based company called Descartes Labs has been using artificial intelligence to detect and track wildfires.
By using satellites to capture imagery roughly every few minutes, the software uses indicators of fire ― such as smoke and thermal infrared sensors ― to detect whether a fire has ignited and to track its whereabouts.
According to CNN Business, the software has been able to detect fires faster than firefighters or civilians in affected areas.
AI also helped uncover the water crisis in the Brazilian part of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. The tech has revealed shocking figures including a 74% decrease in its its surface water which means huge losses for wildlife (4,000 species of plants and animals live in the Pantanal, including jaguars, tapirs and anacondas), people and nature.
“AI technology provided us with a shockingly clear picture,” says Cássio Bernardino, WWF-Brasil’s MapBiomas water project lead. “Without AI and ML technology, we would never have known how serious the situation was, let alone had the data to convince people. Now we can take steps to tackle the challenges this loss of surface water poses to Brazil’s incredible biodiversity and communities.”
This important innovation can help to quickly alert officials before fires begin to spread too vastly, and bring the fire to the attention of first responders who are then able to get to the scene more quickly.
4. Drones to plant trees
The rate of deforestation is rapidly escalating as a result of climate change, human destruction, and global food production.
Repopulating trees lost to deforestation is essential to help regulate and decrease global carbon emissions and encourage biodiversity. Drones that fire seed pods into the ground have become the fastest and most effective way to plant a large number of trees.
In 2020, Canadian company Flash Forest used drone technology to plant seeds in an area where trees had burned down in a wildfire. Flash Forest plans to plant 40,000 trees a month and aims to have planted 1 billion trees by 2028.
According to the company, using drones to plant trees is 10 times faster than manual plantation by humans.
They're not the only company to take on the initiative of planting trees using drones, either, and there are a number of global organizations using the technology to combat deforestation.
5. Robot jellyfish to protect coral reefs
Coral reefs are structures in oceans that form the basis of densely populated and diverse ecosystems. These reefs are built by tiny animals called coral polyps.
Unfortunately coral reefs face many dangers and can be damaged by the effects of climate change, pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and human exploration.
Just last week, British scientists revealed a safe way to explore endangered coral reefs: robot jellyfish.
The robot was designed by analyzing jellyfish, squid, and octopuses and was created using a 3-D printer. It’s made of soft, flexible rubber material and uses small but powerful propellers to swim.
The idea is to begin using robot jellyfish in the place of divers to observe, explore, and even restore delicate coral reefs.
Although this technology has been tested in tanks, it has yet to be tested in the ocean.
6. Listening to Whalesong
Knowing where whales are is the first step to protecting them but locating them visually across vast oceans is difficult.
However, their distinctive singing can travel hundreds of miles underwater. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (Noaa) are using acoustic recorders to monitor the gentle marine giants remote in remote areas.
Ann Allen, Noaa research oceanographer. “In 14 years, we’ve accumulated around 190,000 hours of acoustic recordings. It would take an exorbitant amount of time for an individual to manually identify whale vocalisations.”
7. Infrared Imaging for Koalas
Australia’s koala populations are in serious decline due to habitat destruction, domestic dog attacks, road accidents and bushfires.
But without knowing how many of them there are left or where they are, saving them is a challenge.
Drones and infrared imaging are being used to determine whether a heat signature belongs to a koala. The tech was used after Australia’s devastating bushfires in 2019 and 2020 to identify surviving koala populations and has been a "gamechanger project to protect koalas" according to Grant Hamilton, associate professor of ecology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).