Saving endangered species with smart tech


Apps, drones, GPS trackers and data are being used in the fight against extinction

24th September 2015
By Lucy Jones

Earth's animals are in serious trouble. Wildlife populations have halved in the last 40 years and species are disappearing at rapid speeds. According to a report from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, "The average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate".

The reasons for the 'sixth mass extinction' are mainly human-driven: hunting, deforestation, overfishing, poaching and climate change. But scientists believe it is possible to slow down the decline – and innovators in the smart tech and open data worlds are trying to help.

In the last few years, thermal imaging, spatial monitoring and DNA analysis have strengthened the crackdown on wildlife crime, but as technology advances and the crisis worsens, the number of sophisticated and often citizen science-driven technologies increases.

Conservation Drones

A US-based company called Conservation Drones, which is currently working to provide affordable technology for worldwide conservation initiatives, has used drones to spot orangutan nests in Sumatra and Borneo; and monitor seabird nesting on a remote island off the West Australian coast. To conserve a species you must accurately determine its location, population density and range – and it's often easier to do that by air than by land, which can be challenging to travel through. Drones can also help catch wildlife criminals and map illegal logging.


The Amazon gets called the lungs of the earth – and for good reason. It contains half of the world's remaining rainforest, which keeps the planet's CO2 levels in check. A project run by journalist Gustavo Faleiros provides news, maps and updates on an open data platform to allow the public to see the region's reality. It is a rich source and shows levels and locations of deforestation, forced labour, illegal timber and mining zones, all factors that accelerate the decline of species.

Fake GPS tusks

Over £13bn worth of elephant tusks and other animal parts are illegally traded each year but it isn't just the species that suffers: the industry profits criminal networks, such as Joseph Kony's LRA, that profoundly affect the lives of local communities. National Geographic explorer Bryan Christy's invention of a GPS tracker on an artificial elephant tusk in 2015, planted in the smuggling supply chain, enabled the ivory route to be tracked and shone a light on a hidden war. It heralds the beginning of a new dawn in the fight against the illegal ivory trade.


World fish stocks are dangerously low as global demand for food rises and many species die out. FishBrain, a Swedish angling app company, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service invite anglers to help track endangered animals by logging up to 50 different at-risk species, which provides the USFWS with essential data about where populations are found and the health of ecosystems. Researchers hope to use the data to work out exactly how habitats and particular species can be protected.

Wildlife Guardian

China is the epicentre of illegal wildlife smuggling. From pangolin scales, believed to cure hysteria, deafness and devil possession to shark fin, which is supposed to increase virility, prosperity and good fortune, the species plundered and sold are numerous. To the untrained eye, animal parts can be tricky to spot. Enter Wildlife Guardian, a smartphone-based app which enables users – mainly law enforcement agencies – to identify 475 species that are in the Chinese market. Animals are identified by visual guides: users can select or describe physical features, such as claw shape, beak shape, plumage colour, and check them against a library of images. Users can also upload photos to the app, with experts on hand to respond to their findings.


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