• Yu Lin Foo

Conservation technology: The role of data and technology in addressing our biodiversity crisis

By Yu Lin Foo | 22 June 2022

Biodiversity is intricately interconnected with functioning natural ecosystems, which are in turn vital for society; we all depend on nature and the ecosystem services it provides, including water, air, resources, and climate regulation. The rise of “Nature-based Solutions”, biodiversity offset credits, and Nature Markets have provided avenues to monetize and channel funding towards conservation and restoration and promote the sustainable stewardship of natural capital. However, in order to assess the effectiveness of current conservation and restoration efforts and fund quality projects, we need to be able to measure biodiversity through methods that are more affordable, scalable, efficient, and accurate.

In the past few decades, researchers and practitioners have leveraged conservation technology – tools that enhance the monitoring and protection of wildlife – including established technologies like camera traps, acoustic sensors, tracking tags and satellite imagery. At the same time, newer technologies have been increasingly explored for their potential in advancing the field; a recent study led by WILDLABS identified the top three emerging innovations with promising trajectories to be Artificial intelligence (machine learning and computer vision), Environmental DNA, and networked sensors.

The case for conservation technology solutions

We at Mana Impact and Silverstrand Capital perceive that there is room for technology – implemented through holistically-designed interventions – to further enable conservation and restoration in the following aspects:

1. Measurement, reporting and verification

2. Enforcement of protected areas through better monitoring

3. Unlocking additional capital for biodiversity conservation

Enhancing Measurement & Evaluation

Conservation technology such as solutions that measure and monitor biodiversity and ecosystems has received relatively little funding and attention, as compared to the environmental monitoring market (which focuses on health and pollution issues). However, a key component of any biodiversity or nature conservation project is the monitoring and evaluation of the intervention to improve the effectiveness of the project. A well-designed project involves a thorough baseline assessment of the ecosystem and biodiversity conditions in the area, measurable targets to track an improvement (or retention) in ecological integrity, and periodic evaluations to measure progress in relation to the baseline conditions and project goals. Monitoring positive impacts such as the return of a keystone or native species, or unintended adverse consequences helps to inform how a project needs to adapt its approach.

Prevalent methods for biodiversity surveys involve on-the-ground data collection, such as line transects and point count surveys. Such manual methods can be labor- and time-intensive, and are often more expensive in remote areas such as marine environments.

Technologies such as acoustic monitoring, camera traps and drones allow for more data on wildlife to be captured and analyzed, and hence provide an avenue to scale up monitoring for larger areas through:

  • Accessing remote and previously inaccessible areas via drones and sensors

  • Improving the efficiency of analytical processes e.g. sorting images via AI for species identification

  • Enabling community-based monitoring and citizen science via mobiles apps where users can input data that are uploaded to cloud dashboards or open-source databases

  • Alerting enforcement units to any illegal forest activities, or measuring and monitoring biodiversity via acoustic monitoring

  • Environmental DNA which has emerged as a powerful tool to pick up on the presence of species in an area – both historical and present – based on trace amounts of samples

Enforcement and Monitoring of Protected Areas

Tracking devices, camera traps, and other sensors can help with the enforcement of protected areas and tracking of illegal wildlife activities through real-time monitoring and alerting rangers of any anomalies in the area. The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) exemplifies the use of a technology platform, coupled with conservation capacity-building activities to empower communities to manage conservation areas.

Unlocking additional finance for biodiversity conservation

Web3 generally refers to the next phase of the web characterized by decentralization and distributed networks, particularly blockchain-based technology. Blockchain has been promoted as a solution to enable transparency and traceability of restoration projects, while the sale of carbon or ecosystem tokens and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) have been adopted as business models to raise funds for wildlife conservation.

Conservation technology is not a panacea – challenges and limitations

A key challenge lies in the accessibility of MRV technologies due to costs and affordability, especially for newer technologies that have yet to scale commercially. Technologies such as eDNA are still prohibitively expensive for most projects; they are mostly used in academic research and are less accessible to lower-income communities. These tools can also be inaccessible due to technical expertise and capacity gaps. For example, GIS software often requires specialist knowledge to generate analytical information.

Biodiversity measurement techniques and methodologies are just as important as the tools used. As compared to well-established protocols for manual data collection for forests or coral reef surveys, there is currently no standard for analyzing some of the data from emerging technologies, such as eDNA.

Moreover, we are just beginning to explore and understand some of the unintended impacts that conservation technologies may have on wildlife and nature. For instance, there are (inconclusive) studies on how drones can result in behavioral and physiological changes in animals and debates regarding the invasive nature of biologging devices.

On the crypto front, there have been criticisms regarding the environmental impact of blockchain-based tokens, given that blockchain technology is energy-intensive and contributes to carbon emissions that need to be accounted for. Additionally, given the distributed network of data input and verification, there is currently no standard ensuring that robust measurement methodologies are used and quality data about the conservation or restoration project is recorded onto each “block” when creating tokens or NFTs. Thus, third-party verifiers, standard-setting organizations and regulators still play a role in standardizing the quality of credits in the market.

Holistic frameworks and project designs are vital

Conservation technology presents an exciting opportunity for revolutionizing the way we measure and evaluate projects, through providing new data, expanding the spatial extent of existing data, or providing real-time information for prompt intervention. However, biodiversity conservation will require more than tech fixes; ultimately, the agency lies with the people who design and deliver the intervention. Community engagement and capacity building is core to project design and implementation, and ultimately a project’s sustainability. Rather than seeking to replace manual data collection, technologies can be used to enhance community-based monitoring in project areas that are also home to local communities and indigenous groups.

Nonetheless, the race against the ongoing sixth extinction event demands that we act fast, and catalyze scalable solutions for conservation and regeneration. Silverstrand Capital’s Biodiversity Accelerator+ is anchored on the belief that solving the biodiversity crisis will require both the adoption of nature-based solutions, as well as technological innovation. The three-month accelerator program will support founders through coaching on topics from biodiversity impact measurement to fundraising and marketing strategies. Learn more and apply by 24th June 2022 here.

Further Readings and references:

1. Identifying conservation technology needs, barriers, and opportunities

2. A global community-sourced assessment of the state of conservation technology

3. Technical Difficulties: The Promise and Pitfalls of Machine Learning for Conservation

4. Digital technology and the conservation of nature