Technology has made a tremendous difference in the world, in areas as diverse as health and education, and pretty much everything in between.
But is technology the weapon that will ultimately eradicate animal poaching and save various species from eradication? It’s not a silver bullet, but it certainly has potential.
That’s why Vulcan – a company started by the late Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft – has produced a tech platform called EarthRanger to monitor protected wildlife areas by drawing in big data from cameras, animal collars and vehicle sensors. Other platforms such as SMART – a spatial monitoring and reporting tool – have also started to gain traction and operate in similar ways to EarthRanger.
Vulcan is known in the conservation world for sponsoring the Great Elephant Census. The census revealed that there are probably fewer than 400 000 savannah elephants left in the wild across Africa. It also revealed a decline of 8% a year between 2007 and 2014, largely due to poaching, either to supply the illegal ivory trade or the bushmeat trade.
A census is useful because it provides a snapshot in time and highlights the urgency of the problem. Elephants are a keystone species, environmental engineers who play irreplaceable roles in maintaining ecological integrity. They’re also incredibly intelligent. Losing them is not an option. But we need more than occasional snapshots to aid conservation efforts.
New technologies, however – as a step beyond census counting – are merely a tool. Their efficacy ultimately depends on the value to the end user. A sound overarching vision and buy-in from users on the ground is also critical. At present, data collection and analysis practices vary from site to site. Without best-practice standards in this respect, all the cleverly collected data in the world may make little difference.
Drones: a silver bullet?
Drones can provide real-time information on animal movements and numbers in ways that traditional surveys cannot. This enhances platforms like SMART and EarthRanger. Drones are not delayed by heavy forest cover. They also don’t need human comforts: they don’t have to be fed, as field technicians do during aerial surveys, and don’t get tired like pilots do.
Moreover, they can detect snares and, in combination with remote sensors and camera traps, identify potential poaching behaviour. Because they can fly often, they put usable information into the hands of rangers, who can plan patrols more preemptively and effectively. This means that anti-poaching resources can be allocated more efficiently. It also means that experts far removed from day-to-day operations can analyse the data for interesting patterns.
This all sounds good. But, in a 2015 paper, I applied a basic game theory model – a “river-crossing” game – to the problem of elephant conservation. It showed that ivory demand reduction requires more capital allocation if anti-poaching initiatives are to be successful. A World Bank analysis later showed that only a small portion of global funding goes towards this goal. More research is also required to make demand reduction campaigns more effective.
The research is a reminder that demand for illicit wildlife products ultimately drives poaching, and even the best technologies can only go so far in complementing anti-poaching efforts.
A multi-pronged approach
One serious spanner in the faith conservationists place in technology is that it can be equally effectively employed by poaching syndicates. As I pointed out in my paper, if an MI-17 helicopter arrives with poachers firing into a herd with extreme precision (as reportedly happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012) no amount of drone-driven anti-poaching efforts can stop the slaughter.
On a field research trip to the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania in 2017, I interviewed the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s programme there, who happened to be running a training programme for park rangers to use new drones. Wisely, the organisation’s roadmap to zero poaching in the Selous recognises that technology is just one among several pillars necessary to achieving significant poaching reduction.
Without the others – including community buy-in, cooperation between various players at different levels, and improved prosecution and conviction outcomes – technology is just a buzzword.
Concerted global efforts to overcome the current challenges associated with anti-poaching technology are crucial for ensuring better results. At the same time, we have to recognise that poaching syndicates also have access to the best technology. If both sides simply become more efficient, we’re still going to lose our wildlife heritage.
For this reason, one cannot overemphasise the importance of effective demand reduction, a more unified approach among range states (countries that have elephant populations), and conservation-driven development from local communities.
Technology can be a valuable arrow in conservation quivers – but alone, it cannot halt the loss of the continent’s elephants. -The Conversation
-Ross Harvey Senior Researcher in Natural Resource Governance (Africa), South African Institute of International Affairs
Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns
Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.
- A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
- Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
- University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
- The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
- 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.
- Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.
Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”
Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely.
Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.
Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus
Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.
- Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
- Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
- N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
- Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.
Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government.
“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.
Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.
Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.
News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.
–Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News
Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors
Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.
- Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
- Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
- Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
- These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
- While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.
What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.
Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.
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