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How technology is taking wildlife conservation to the next level

  • Written by  Bruce ‘Doc’ Watson
  • Published in Opinions
How technology is taking wildlife conservation to the next level
21 Dec
2018
We’ve reached a critical juncture in the illegal poaching of some of our planet’s most endangered species and technological advancements might be the key to tipping the balance

The ivory trade is at an all-time high and, in my home country of South Africa, we’re losing three rhinos every day – a decline that will result in extinction should it continue. In China, the lifting of a 25-year ban on the sale of rhino and tiger parts caused global uproar as environmental groups rightly criticised the move. The lifting of the ban has since been postponed, but the very fact this attitude still exists, especially from such an important global player, is incredibly concerning.

Beyond rhinos and tigers, an estimated 27,000 elephants and 100,000 pangolins are slaughtered every year. And despite their best efforts, conservation and environmental groups are fighting a losing battle. This isn’t a war they can win on their own. It’s everyone’s responsibility to join the ranks and fight to save our planet’s endangered species before it’s too late.

Taking the battle to the poachers

This year, we’ve taken some important steps in reducing illegal poaching. In October, London played host to the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, with political leaders, heads of state, ministers and experts from over 80 countries coming together to pledge commitments to end wildlife crime and its causes. Among these initiatives was the Ivory Alliance 2024 – a ground-breaking coalition of political leaders, conservationists and celebrities whose aim is to bring together 30 more countries committed to national bans on ivory sales over the next six years. A Wildlife Financial Taskforce made up of over 30 global banks and financial institutions also launched, aiming to disrupt the international money flows linked to the illegal wildlife trade.

We’ve also enjoyed significant advancements in science and technology helping to change the way we protect animals over the past 12 months. Following the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, in March 2018, a team of scientists has been investigating the use of IVF and stem cell technology to save the subspecies from extinction. Researchers are also exploring how DNA and genetic tracking can be used to identify and prosecute poachers.

I’ve been passionate about wildlife almost my entire life, which is why I believe tech organisations have the potential to play a huge role in society, beyond the traditional corporate social responsibility programmes, making a tangible impact on making our planet a better place.

Dimension Data has been collaborating with Cisco for years now, and have recently installed some of the world’s most sophisticated technology – including thermal imaging, biometric scanning, and powerful data analytics – in a private game reserve located next to the infamous Kruger National Park in South Africa.

And the Connected Conservation project has been a resounding success. Since the technology for Connected Conservation was first deployed in November 2015, we’ve cut rhino poaching incidents by a staggering 96 per cent. Even more encouragingly, in 2017, no rhinos in the reserve were poached.

In order to make a tangible impact, we knew we would have to do things differently and take a proactive approach to tracking and monitoring people entering the reserve – rather than tracking the animals and potentially causing them undue stress. With this project, we’re driving real change in conservation, demonstrating the capacity to protect not only the rhino, but also other endangered animals, in more geographies.

The reserve is monitored 24 hours 365 days a year from the control room The reserve is monitored 24 hours 365 days a year from the control room

A multi-million dollar business is hard to topple

Sadly, as illegal wildlife trade continues to bleed into every corner of the world, it becomes one of the most organised, high-tech, and lucrative contraband markets on the planet. Environmental groups, governments, and park rangers are facing poachers with military-grade equipment. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry after all, and those benefitting financially are invariably going to continue investing in the development of increasingly sophisticated methods.

If rhinos become extinct, Africa will lose one of its most captivating wonders. The knock-on effect will impact the environmental wellbeing of the entire continent — soil, insects, birds, vegetation, and more. In turn, the African economy will suffer a blow during a period of otherwise encouraging uplift. Tourism and employment will take a hit as, in many areas of the continent, whole communities depend on the tourist revenue generated by wildlife parks and game reserves.

To stop the trade in illegal wildlife products, we must be as persistent as the criminals we aim to stop. While technological advances are an important weapon in the war on poaching, there is no silver bullet to solving the problem. Combatting poaching effectively will require a concerted global effort. This means adopting bold policies that encourage new behaviours; strengthening law enforcement to break the supply chain; following the money to disrupt profits; and using the latest technological developments to proactively protect endangered species against humans.

Bruce ‘Doc’ Watson is a wildlife conservation expert and is the Group Executive for Dimension Data’s Connected Conservation programme

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