Collaboration is key to scaling conservation technologies (commentary)

  • To tackle conservation challenges, the sector has embraced numerous technologies like GPS, radio telemetry, satellite imagery, camera traps, and software to process and analyze data.
  • A new op-ed argues that such tech must be built with the end-user in mind: their voices must be considered to ensure the solutions reflect the real needs on the ground.
  • Investors, NGOs, and conservationists should also demand that conservation technology is developed in the field and is both scalable and coalition-based: collaborations like Wildlife Insights and SMART are prime examples.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Threats to wildlife and wild places abound. Waters warming due to climate change threaten coral reefs more frequently and with greater intensity than ever before; the expansion of agriculture, infrastructure, and mining cut off eons-old elephant migration routes in Africa, while roads increase the threat of poaching; forest habitat degradation is so profound that of the forests that remain, only 40% have high ecological integrity.

To tackle these and other growing challenges, the conservation sector has embraced numerous technological advances such as GPS collars, radio telemetry, satellite imagery, camera traps, and software to process and analyze data. These tools have helped to dramatically increase the volume and quality of data and information for improved conservation impact and effectiveness.

Due to financial and capacity constraints facing conservation, ongoing technological innovations are essential. However, as we continue to invest and experiment in this space, it is an imperative we learn from what has, and has not, worked. Three challenges continue to repeat themselves.

Jacob Osang, a Wildlife Conservation Society eco-guard, replaces and cleans a camera trap at Natural Bridge in Mbe Mountains. Image by Gianluca Cerullo.

First, project-based financing has led to a proliferations of pilot projects that have built costly boutique solutions that do not scale. Secondly, stories of overnight billionaires and an extremely simplified view of how technology is created and adopted has led many to believe in “build-it-and-they-will-come” solutions that fail to incorporate the specific needs of front-line conservationists, like poor internet connectivity, staff turnover, or the need for product marketing and support.

Finally, there is a history of overpromising that the next collaboration with big-tech will deliver a panacea. Major, intractable issues do not need flash-in-the-pan solutions. They need solutions that grow and adapt based on their needs and, most importantly, will provide durable impact over the long term.

Solutions that have scaled and provide ongoing impact have generally shared the same approach: engage a broad and inclusive set of stakeholders; create a level playing field for all participants; focus on a clear, shared, solvable issue; learn from prior attempts; develop a robust business plan; and formally commit to securing success.

Conservation technology must be built with the end-user in mind, just as private sector solutions view their customers. Strong voices from the eventual user community must be considered to ensure our solutions reflect the real needs on the ground. The conservation sector can and should be challenged to adopt applications from the broader technology space.

View all of Mongabay’s conservation technology coverage here.

Autonomous underwater drone designed to measure microplastics. Image courtesy of Draper.

These partnerships should seek sustainable and long term collaborations to avoid siloing. Collaboration across multiple organizations and sectors in development stages has proven invaluable. Sharing resources and capacity has demonstrated exceptional ability to provide for scaling from the get-go

The success of this approach is not limited to the conservation sector, but applies across social and public services. For example, District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) has shown how donors, the technology sector, health practitioners and academia can deliver complex health information systems across the Global South. This partnership has lasted over 15 years, with deployments in more than 60 countries, with over 10 partners.

The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) is a leading example of this approach within the conservation sector. National parks are notoriously underfunded, often staffed with just a handful of rangers to protect hundreds of square kilometers of lands and waters. With few staff and tiny budgets, there was little park managers could do about widespread poaching without massive budgets.

The SMART coalition built a tool that supports rangers, monitors their activities, optimizes patrol routes, deters poachers, and addresses human-wildlife conflict for a tenfold improvement in conservation effectiveness. Ten years later, SMART has been adopted at over 1,000 sites and by 70 organizations, with 20 national organizations formally adopting SMART at the national level.

See related: Bioacoustics researcher wins top award for positive impact toward solving global challenges

TNC scientist Eddie Game checks an acoustic recorder in Papua New Guinea. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / The Nature Conservancy
Bioacoustics scientist Eddie Game checks an acoustic recorder in Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of Justine E. Hausheer/The Nature Conservancy

By working together, the scale of the impact is six times larger than that of the largest partner NGO alone! Results were neither quick nor easy. It took two years to build a business plan, bring partners on board, and make sure the effort could be sustained. But the benefits are undeniable: shared risk and cost, economies of scale, economies of experience, and a solution to one of the biggest conservation problems of the day—at a fraction of the cost of each group working alone.

Wildlife Insights is another emerging collaboration that blends cutting-edge AI technology with camera traps to create the world’s largest open access database of field images. In addition, it provides automated image analysis that cuts processing down from months to minutes. Global Forest Watch brings together non-profits, academia, and the technology sector to provide a globally scaled, free, real-time data solution for monitoring all the world’s forests.

MERMAID is a free data platform that is operational both with and without internet connectivity, enabling coral scientists to collect and share data that governments, donors, and other partners can use to track the global status of coral reef health.

Investors, organizations, and conservationists should demand that conservation technology is developed field-first and is both scalable and coalition-based. We have no choice if we are serious about providing durable solutions that effectively address the complex conservation challenges we face today.

Jonathan Palmer is Executive Director of Conservation Technology at Wildlife Conservation Society.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A close look at the power and potential of bioacoustics, listen here:

Further viewing: