Over the past several decades, we have experienced a boom in new technologies to make our lives easier, our work more efficient, and our lifestyles more sustainable. Conservation biologists have adopted many of these new technologies to great success (Pimm et al., 2015). Consider, for example, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor environmental changes (Box 15.1), freely-available satellite imagery to monitor ecosystems (Section 10.1.1) and wildlife (Section 11.1.1), and molecular methods to monitor for wildlife crimes (Section 12.3.1). Hand-held devices that capture and send field data in real time are also increasing in popularity, as they enable conservation and law enforcement agencies to learn of and respond to threats much quicker than before (Wilson et al., 2019). To better streamline these efforts, there are groups such as Wildlabs which specialise in connecting the conservation community with engineers and entrepreneurs who develop such new technologies.
Meg Boeni and Richard Primack
Biology Department, Boston University,
Boston, MA, USA.
Many of us have experienced the difficulty of following a moving herd of zebras, elephants, or any other large mammal from a vehicle or on foot. But what if this could be done from the sky? Efforts, such as mapping threatened species habitat, monitoring deforestation, and even fighting forest fires, have been aided for over 40 years with an “eye in the sky” using satellite and other aerial imagery (Pettorelli et al., 2013). The recent emergence of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has begun to make it even easier to facilitate conservation efforts from above.
Drone technology was originally developed for military applications but is fast becoming a vital resource to conservation biologists and natural resource managers. The increased popularity of drones in conservation is due to several distinct advantages. They are cheaper than airplanes or satellites; basic models that can fly up to 150 m high are available for around US $2,000. Because they operate from the ground, they are also less affected by weather conditions such as cloud cover. Drones can carry a range of sensors and equipment—video, thermal imaging, or sound—that allow them to detect organisms and ecological processes that would be impossible to study otherwise, especially at large scales. New organizations such as Conservation Drones have greatly facilitated discussions and innovations in this rapidly developing technology. Lastly, some governments are highly receptive to these new technologies. Leading the way is Rwanda, where regulators are setting the stage for an airport dedicated to civilian and commercial drones (Simmons, 2016).
While conservationists are just beginning to explore the flexibility and applicability of drones, they have already proven their worth in African conservation initiatives (Figure 15.A). With encouragement from national park officials, drones have been used to survey elephant populations in Burkina Faso (Vermuelen et al., 2013) and chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes, EN) nests and fruiting trees in Gabon (van Andel et al., 2015). In South Africa, drones assist anti-poaching patrols in remote areas of national parks (Mulero-Pázmány et al., 2014). There are even discussions of using drones to plant trees in reforestation efforts, and to directly manage wildlife, such as deploying noise-making drones to block an elephant herd from entering farming areas.
Despite progress, a range of obstacles still must be overcome. For example, drones are often prohibited from flying near government buildings (which often includes conservation infrastructure); many countries also continue to uphold strict and arduous legal requirements for drone use. It is also important to remember that drones will never replace the need for rangers and researchers on the ground. They do however hold great promise in their potential to overcome some of the fundamental challenges that conservation biologists have always faced.
While conservation biologists certainly benefit from new technologies, these advances sometimes pose new challenges. Hunters now use powerful guns and motorised vehicles where historically they used bows and arrows and walked on foot. Sea fishing industries have transformed from using small wind-powered and hand-powered boats to large motorised fleets with freezers that can stay at sea for months at a time. Some technologies are so powerful that they allow for the alteration of entire ecosystems in a relatively short span of time. Some of these transformations are intentional, such as the creation of dams and the conversion of new agricultural land; others, such as pollution, are negative by-products from human activities. The impacts of these developments on ecosystems and wildlife are enormous and ominous; they have also stimulated the growth, expansion, and evolution of conservation biology.
Renewable energy sources are needed to create a sustainable society. They must also be evaluated for their environmental impact, with systems developed to mitigate those impacts.
Technologies developed to achieve sustainable development may sometimes also present new conservation challenges. For example, to combat climate change, scientists and engineers are rushing to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by developing carbon-neutral and energy efficient alternatives. As these renewable energy sources have become more assimilated into our everyday lives, their unintended consequences on the environment have also become better understood. We now know that large wind farms (Figure 15.2) pose a significant collision hazard to birds (Rushworth and Krüger, 2014) and bats (Frick et al., 2017), while large solar-panel arrays that concentrate sunlight can also expose wildlife to burning temperatures (Walston et al., 2016). The impacts of hydroelectric dams are cause for even more concern: in addition to harming local fisheries and freshwater biodiversity (Section 5.3.2), these and other artificial reservoirs also generate large amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change (Deemer et al., 2016). Bioenergy also seems to create more problems than solutions, since it has become an important driver of habitat loss (Kleiner, 2007; see also Box 6.1). Similarly, hydrological fracturing for natural gas extraction—not in itself a carbon-neutral energy alternative but claimed to do less damage than coal and petroleum—has turned out to be so damaging to the environment and human health that several governments have now banned the practice (Section 7.1.1).
Despite the challenges posed by emerging technologies, none have yet posed an insurmountable threat. For example, we have already solved the ozone crisis by banning harmful chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (Section 12.2.1). We have also come a long way toward a sustainable fossil-fuel free world by setting guidelines for reducing the impact of wind power generation on wildlife (Reid et al., 2015; Martin et al., 2017), reducing the negative impacts of bioenergy production (Correa et al., 2017), safeguarding nuclear power stations and reusing nuclear waste (Heard and Brook, 2017), and developing more affordable solar power (Randall, 2016). It is important, however, to note that none of these emerging threats were solved by people who defended the status quo or resisted change, but by individuals who were alert and rapidly responded to new challenges before they reached a crisis point.
Environmental challenges are not solved by defending the status quo or resisting change, but by being alert and rapidly responding to new challenges before they reach a crisis point.