Tapping into Innovative Solutions to Save the World's Wildlife
Wildlife populations across the globe face innumerable threats that have resulted in dwindling numbers of many species. Ginette Hemley, SVP of Wildlife Conservation at World Wildlife Fund, will take us through many of the bold new approaches to conservation that organizations like WWF are taking to tackle these challenges. One of the most promising and potentially game-changing ideas for solving conservation problems around the world is by applying technology in creative new ways. From examining polar bear DNA to utilizing devices such as thermal imaging cameras and gunshot detectors to drawing upon the power of social networks and apps, learn about the surprising ways that WWF and its partners are harnessing the power of technology to keep up with the planet's most urgent wildlife conservation challenges.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ginette Hemley, Senior Vice President, Wildlife Conservation at WWF.
Good afternoon, well I'm really excited to be here because this is not the type of audience I usually address. I'm not a developer, as you've heard, I'm head of Wildlife Conservation at World Wildlife Fund, which is the leading organization working globally to protect wild places and wild species and to reduce the human footprint on the planet.
WWF has been around for more than 50 years. We work in more than 100 countries and we have more than 6 million members worldwide.
I'm usually talking to audiences of conservation scientists or policymakers like congress or donors and supporters. But one of the things I want to talk to you about today is how we're beginning to use technology to help save the planet and to help conserve wildlife. And it may surprise you to hear about some of the interesting and new ways we're using technology to save wildlife. But first, I want to step back and take a look at the state of the planet.
We don't hear a lot of good news on this front these days, we are in fact facing unprecedented declines of some of the world's most magnificent wildlife.
But we're also on the cusp of some amazing wildlife recoveries and I'm going to tell you about some of those today.
But first, here's the backdrop.
Our living planet report tells us that in the last 40 years we've lost half the populations of the world's vertebrate species.
That's mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.
It's affecting many of our most iconic species, including rhinos and tigers and elephants.
Why is this happening? The reason it's happening is twofold, habitat loss and degradation and illegal hunting or poaching.
Habitat loss is driven mainly by agricultural expansion due to growing human numbers, the demand for food and for commodities like soy and palm oil and sugar.
Also developing infrastructure like roads and generally growing urbanization. And climate change is only adding to the challenge by creating increased environmental stresses, such as more intense droughts and flooding, which is impacting a lot of things, including wildlife migrations and seasonal breeding and feeding patterns. Now simultaneously a booming illegal trade in wildlife products is impacting some of our most endangered species.
This is a trade that is valued at, at least $20 billion a year in wildlife and wildlife products.
Which makes it one of the top illegal enterprises in the world amazingly after narcotics and weapons and human trafficking. And it's taking its toll on some of our most endangered species.
For example, a surge in the trade of ivory in recent years has led to the death of as many as 30,000 elephants a year.
Are traded for their ivory, which is consumed mainly in Asia, but also here in the United States.
We are a major wildlife consuming country, which surprises a lot of people.
By the time I finish this talk three elephants will have been killed illegally for their ivory.
Now surge in poaching of rhinos in South Africa has happened over the last decade from 13 animals killed in 2007 to over 1200 killed last year.
This is driven by demand in Vietnam mainly, but also in China where rhino horn is marketed as a cure for cancer and unbelievably as a hangover treatment. And this latter use is a recent fad and is not rooted in any kind of traditional medicine and neither of these uses has any proven medical efficacy. And in the last century we've lost 97% of the world's wild tigers, we're down to as few as 3900 in the wild. Tigers are killed illegally for their skins, for their bones and other body parts, which are used in modern-day health tonics.
So it's a pretty grim picture, there's no question and people often ask me well how do you not just get totally discouraged all the time in your work with these horrifying statistics and all the trends going in the wrong direction.
And my response is well yes, there are a lot of challenges for sure, but we're making important progress and in fact, some of these trends are beginning to be reversed. And that is because I believe that power and possibility. I'm going to talk to you today about the power of big ideas, the power of technology, and the power of communities. Now I know these are big concepts that this conference is famous for dealing with, but what I want to do today is put into a wildlife conservation context for you. So let me tell you what's happening with tigers.
Seven years ago tiger numbers reached an all-time low. When we look back now we realize that something big had to happen if tigers were going to survive. So we came up with the idea to hold a global summit on tiger conservation. That had never been done before for an endangered species and we wondered if anyone would take us seriously. With all the pressing problems in the world who would care about tigers.
Well, we found an unlikely champion in President Vladimir Putin of Russia who it turns out has a soft spot for tigers, who would have guessed.
Well, we convinced him to invite world leaders to a unique gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia to chart a path for the tiger's recovery. We put forward an ambitious challenge to double the number of tigers in the wild by the year 2022, which is the next Chinese year of the tiger.
We knew what it would take to recover tigers, it's a pretty simple formula. They need healthy habitat, they need enough prey to eat and they need to be protected from poaching.
We also knew that the main missing ingredient was political will.
Well fortunately, the leaders of the 13 tiger range countries and these are the countries where tigers are still left in the wild agreed and they committed to a bold new recovery plan for tigers.
This was the first of its kind ever for an endangered species.
We call this TX2, Doubling Tigers in the Wild. And this year marks the halfway point to 2022.
And guess what, governments in Asia are beginning to implement the recovery plan and tiger numbers are beginning to grow in the wild. For example, tigers have been documented for the first time as breeding in the wild in northeast China.
And tigers have been recorded in places they've never been seen before or documented before, which is on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, which is where this video of a mother and her cubs was taken just last year.
For the first time in a century overall tiger numbers are beginning to tick upward in the wild.
If we are successful in reaching our goal of doubling tigers it will be I think one of the greatest achievements ever in wildlife conservation.
And personally, I believe we can do it because I've seen this recovery firsthand.
So 20 years ago, gosh that was probably before a lot of you were born.
Twenty years ago I visited a park in India called Ranthambore, a tiger reserve.
It was a bad time for tigers, poaching had hit many areas really hard and Ranthambore, which was once a tiger stronghold was down to about 10 tigers left in the whole park.
The park was suffering from bad management, poor enforcement, it was pretty bleak. We saw almost no wildlife at all and I left that place thinking well there's just no way this park can survive with all the pressing issues that India has to deal with how can park have any future.
Well this tiger named Machali was born about the time I visited Ranthambore.
We didn't see her then, but she was there in fact, she did manage to survive.
In fact, she went on to become one of Ranthambore's most famous tigers.
Well after I left Ranthambore things got a little bit worse in the park, but then they got better.
The Indian government started to invest in better enforcement, more park rangers, critical research and things started to turn around there. And amazingly, tigers have started to come back.
And Machali not only did she survive she went on to have 11 cubs with two different mates, one of them appropriately called Big Daddy because he was the father of seven of them.
And then those cubs went on to have another 20. And so Machali's dynasty includes more than 30 offspring and many of them are doing really well today. Well I had the chance to go back to Ranthambore just a few months ago, in December of last year, and I witnessed an amazing transformation. The park was teeming with life and Ranthambore's tiger numbers are now close to 60.
That's a number that actually exceeds the carrying capacity of the park, so much so that the government is actually capturing some tigers and relocating them to other areas outside the park and is planning a set of new reserves for these tigers. And that's unprecedented in recent tiger conservation history. So I believe we can double the number of tigers in the wild if governments and conservationists help create the necessary conditions.
Perhaps the boldest idea in tiger conservation today is bringing tigers back to places where they've become extinct. And this is what Cambodia is planning to do. This photo was taken in 2007 and it's the last known tiger in Cambodia.
None have been seen there since. Well just three months ago the Cambodian government announced a plan to bring tigers back to the eastern plains landscape of the country, which is a very biologically diverse area, there's still a lot of habitat, tigers can live there, it's under pretty serious threat, but there's enough habitat for tigers.
And we are working with the Cambodian government in several ways to help prepare for this possible reintroduction. We're working to help bring back the prey species, such as the sambar dear, kouprey, which is a type of wild cattle. These are important species for the tigers to eat. It happens to also be that these species are popular with local people and a lot of them have been hunted out because of poor enforcement. So we're helping to bring these species back and also helping the government to increase its enforcement in this area because tigers and their prey will never survive without good enforcement. And we're also working to prepare the local people for the prospect of living next to one of the world's great predators.
Interestingly, in our conservation work with wildlife as human populations grow we have increasing conflict with people. It's happening all over the world, but also interestingly in Cambodia, there's a lot of local support for bringing tigers back as it turns out. Because tigers have always been a popular part of Cambodian culture and natural history. Well if all goes well the government of Cambodia hopes to get eight tigers from India in 2019 for release to the wild.
It's a long and complicated road ahead and it's not without controversy or risk, but if it happens it will be one of the most exciting developments I think in wildlife conservation. Well I'm happy to say that rhinos are also recovering in parts of their range. Whole new populations actually are being established by physically moving these prehistoric looking animals to help set up safe new homes for them where their numbers can grow.
And I want to show you a video of a big idea that's playing out in South Africa where incredibly the safest way to physically move these animals is to tranquilize them and lift them up by helicopter for transport by air on a journey that would otherwise take many hours if not days by road.
Black rhino and rhinos generally are under huge pressure. We really have to fight for them. If they don't have champions they're doomed to disappear.
And this is the kindest way we've yet discovered of moving a rhino from the field to a vehicle. It's a big operation, it's a lot of animals to try and move in a really short time. There are no roads, there is no access whatsoever. You know, most of these parts are wilderness area.
The WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project aims to boost the growth rate of the black rhino populations of South Africa.
It's become a passion, it's not just a job it's a passion and yeah, it gets into your soul.
There hasn't really been an operation of this nature with 20 black rhino conducted in South Africa.
It's a bit sad to let them go, you get attached to them. The field rangers know them by name. Every single one is different, you know, it's a wild animal that's completely unpredictable. We're really glad for them because we think it's a -- we know that it's critical and it's extremely important.
Over 1400 kilometer journey, it's the longest journey I've ever done with rhinos. The black rhino coming back in this area it was a very big thing.
This has been a very good cooperative thing because we've got Eastern Cape parks, we've got SANParks, we've got wildlife and of course, WWF. And I think it could only work because all the different parties are so passionate.
It's a huge thing too to see them for the first time coming to this particular area here.
There's no doubt that this project has made a huge difference to rhino conservation in South Africa.
So in the midst of a poaching epidemic that's hitting parts of the country whole new rhino populations are being created through this extraordinary method building a future for the species in South Africa.
Well another country that is pioneering rhino translocations is Nepal where it has increased its populations of greater one horned rhino, another species, from 400 animals about 10 years ago to 650 today and it hopes to get 800 by 2020 and it's well on its way.
Because of the dense forest that this species lives in the more traditional method of moving them by truck is used and the latest rhino translocations took place in Nepal in March of this year when eight rhinos were moved from one national park to another. And I want to show you a video of a rhino getting introduced to its new home. See it, has a bit a hard time getting out of the truck.
It gives you a sense of how powerful these two ton animals are.
Well there's wonderful evidence that these recently translocated rhinos are doing well.
Just three weeks ago one of them gave birth to this adorable little guy who is also getting to know his new home for the first time. Well, sometimes big ideas need to be backed by the power of technology and we are increasingly using tech in our work, on the ground, in the cloud, information sharing, crowdsourcing to the Internet of things and all the sensors that are part of it.
There's no question that technology is helping to fortify and accelerate many of our wildlife conservation efforts.
But just for a larger context, when I first went to Ranthambore in India, the human population of India was about a billion people. India is projected to add another half billion people to its population by 2050.
In Africa, the human population is expected to double by the year 2015 and double again by the end of the century.
Technology needs to help conservation adapt to this crowded new world.
So let me show you some of the ways that we're using tech in our work from new tracking methods of wildlife using DNA to detecting and deterring poaching using thermal cameras and drones.
So our work tracking wildlife has come a long way. We used to rely on pugmarks to footprints or scat, which are animal droppings to count and monitor animals and that was very laborious and pretty imprecise.
So camera traps have become kind of the mainstream way of monitoring animals in the natural habitat. Camera traps are cameras set up remotely that are triggered by a motion sensor when an animal crosses its path. And these are especially useful for species that are most active at night like lions or species that have distinctive markings like a brown hyena where you can identify individuals by their markings and the same with tigers. In fact, the latest tiger surveys have relied on thousands and thousands of images from camera traps that are giving us the latest tiger population trends.
And as cameras become lighter and smaller they are giving us a wonderful window into what the world looks like from an animal's perspective. And videos like this help us understand how species like turtles are using their habitat, which helps us understand how to protect them better. They are also great tools for raising awareness.
This video has been viewed by millions of people, it's gone viral and it's been a very popular one that's really helped connect people to turtles in a unique way. And innovative uses of GPS technology are helping us to understand where wildlife is going, their daily movements and their seasonal migrations.
One of our scientists made a cool discovery in 2012 by putting special satellite collars with the latest GPS technology on a group of eight zebras he discovered that they moved from a part of northern Namibia to the middle of Botswana, about 200 miles south. And this turns out to be the longest known terrestrial migration in Africa and it's amazing to think that as recently as just four years ago we didn't know about the longest land migration in Africa and this technology made that possible.
So here's an animation of the zebras moving over the course of about six or seven months. Each colored dot represents an individual zebra. They start in this northern part of Namibia and they start moving south as the wet season comes on. You'll see the dark green background indicating the wet season is coming. They move south pretty quickly to a special place where it turns out they eat a very nutritious grass during the wet season. They hang out there for about 10 weeks and then they kind of start meandering back up north to the place from where they came. It takes them a little longer to get back up, but they finally end up back when the dry season comes to their preferred habitat in Namibia. And the importance of this data is that we can now use it to advocate for protecting the species through its whole migration corridor and thus preserve the lifecycle of the herd in this particular area.
Well, one of the most recent developments that I'm most excited about is the use of thermal imaging cameras to help identify poaching threats.
Thermal cameras are also known as infrared cameras detect the heat emitted from a person or an animal. And in a pilot we're undertaking in Africa we're pairing these cameras with software that is able to distinguish an animal from a person. So when a person crosses into a park illegally or inappropriately the software automatically sends a signal to enforcement authorities.
Since these cameras were installed a few weeks ago, they're put on poles actually and they have a viewing range of 2 miles, up to 2 miles, a huge range. And since they were installed they have detected several intruders in this particular area and one suspected poacher has been arrested. And let me show you the video of the poacher or suspected poacher who was arrested. You see him walking along the fence line, which is the border of the park.
He's looking for a way to get into the park inappropriately.
Finally finds a way, jumps over and he's in the park. And that red box around him is what triggers the signal, the alert that's sent to enforcement authorities who later nabbed him.
So if this technology is successful, if this pilot works we hope to scale it to other areas where we think it could have a really good use in perimeter security around protected areas.
Well remember I said earlier we started our work years ago using footprints as a way to track animals and count them. Well we're still using footprints, but these days we're extracting DNA from them.
Through advances in DNA technology an amazing amount of information can be drawn from a polar bear footprint in the snow, including the gender of the animal and incredibly what it had for its last meal. So as we're working with DNA experts to refine this technology and get the cost down. But this has the potential to revolutionize how we track animals in their natural habitats and it's particularly useful -- it could be useful for species like polar bears who live in very extreme environments, making them extremely difficult to study and very expensive to study. So this is exciting as well.
Well, we've been hearing a lot about drones in so many different ways and drones are a big part of our work in conservation. There's been a lot of hype about them as well.
The challenge we have with using drones in conservation is to develop civilian level systems of drones that have some of the similar capabilities as military drones, but at a fraction of the cost, otherwise they're just never going to be used by park managers and conservationists.
So we're experimenting with these different sort of downscaled systems of using different approaches and for different needs. For example, we're using them to map colonies of prairie dogs here in United States.
Prairie dogs happen to be the main prey species for the most endangered mammal in North America, which is the black-footed ferrets. So by knowing where prairie dogs live we know where ferrets live or have the potential to live so we can thus help better develop recovery efforts for them.
We're also using drones to help identify poaching threats and address poaching in Africa.
Well the challenge we've had with drones is that they are probably best used and best function as reactionary tools or devices that are deployed when another sensor is set off somewhere else in the area that the drones can then help pinpoint where potential illegal activity is taking place.
In fact, drones because right now the viewing of the videos is not as broad as it could be the range. We are now working to try to get those improved so that more can be seen from a drone. We're also trying to develop software much like with the thermal cameras that can help us identify people from animals and thus, send alerts automatically to rangers. So we're continuing to evolve our work with drones and they certainly have a role to play in different ways if we can get the capabilities improved.
We're also continuing to think of new ideas to help some of our challenges and I wanted to share a couple that are in their early stages of development. These are wire snares, snares are one of the greatest hazards to wildlife everywhere. Literally millions and millions of them are used around the world and they are creating real havoc for wildlife.
They're easy, unfortunately they're inexpensive and relatively easy to use and we need to find a way to detect them better, so that rangers can collect them. In fact, in one park in Malawi last year just to give you a sense of how widely these are used. Malawi is a country in Africa, 13,000 snares were collected over an eight month period and that probably wasn't all that were in this particular park. So what we're doing is we're experimenting with types of radar to try to map where snares are because they're made of metal we can use radar we hope. Potentially positioned from drones, so that rangers can more easily find them and go out and collect them. And if we can do this in a cost-effective way it could be a huge gain for wildlife.
Snares typically grab an animal by its leg and inflict a lot of injury. Sometimes it'll grab them by the neck like this zebra, fortunately the zebra was able to survive, but often species do not.
We're also working on a gunshot detector to help pinpoint where poaching is happening.
And we got the idea from a tool called ShotSpotter, which we actually read about in the Washington Post. ShotSpotter is used by police departments to try to pinpoint where gunshots are happening in cities through audio sensors that are placed on buildings.
We called up the Washington DC Police Department who invited us down to see ShotSpotter in action.
We sat in the command center looking at this big screen as pins dropped in real time as shots were going off around the city. It was quite a surreal experience.
The challenge we have on the wildlife front is, where do you put sensors, audio sensors, in a vast national park? No buildings there, huge territory.
Well the idea that we're working on is to place the detector on a special collar fitted on an elephant that could help rangers quickly come to an area where maybe an animal has been shot and if it's only wounded they may stand a better chance of saving it than they otherwise would and it could prevent further killing of the herd.
Also it could be a good deterrent by simply seeing this device on the elephant poachers may stay away.
This could be a great tool for conservation, but right now the costs are a pretty significant limiting factor.
Well none of this really promising technology can replace people on the ground, the rangers, the enforcement officers, the communities who are really critical to protecting wildlife. In fact, it's often the people who live closest to the wildlife who are its greatest guardians. I mentioned earlier the country of Nepal and its successful rhino conservation efforts.
A lot of that success is due to the direct involvement of communities and conservation.
Nepal has achieved a remarkable record.
In fact, in the last six years, four of those years, Nepal has had zero poaching of rhinos.
This is an amazing achievement at a time when rhino poaching is happening, big rates everywhere in the world. The reason for this is the involvement of local communities, big commitments from the government, but particularly communities have set up informer networks that share critical tips on illegal activities and help track poaching and illegal trading activities in wildlife. And in fact, one notorious rhino smuggler was recently prosecuted in Nepal after community members collected information and they banded together to turn him in. And he's now serving a seven year sentence, which is a long sentence for a wildlife crime.
In the country of Namibia all the trends that you're seeing across Africa have been bucked in this country and that is due to the involvement of communities and conservation.
Namibia has actually seen growth almost across the board of its wildlife populations in the last 20 years and its elephant numbers have in fact tripled since the 1990's.
At a time when unfortunately numbers have plummeted in most other countries in Africa. And this is because communities are directly involved in conservation as the managers and stewards of the wildlife there. Legislation in Namibia gives communities the right and the responsibility to manage wildlife resources under their jurisdictions.
It also allows them to benefit directly from the revenues associated with wildlife related activities like ecotourism.
This gives them a direct incentive in and stake in conservation and that has made all the difference. This is truly a model program for both wildlife conservation and world development and in fact, a lot of countries are looking to Namibia to learn how they're doing it so they can also adopt some of these same practices. While communities of another sort are helping us to address the needed reforms and policies in some of the most important wildlife consuming countries.
That letter that was up there is called Chor Chang, it is a letter in the Thai alphabet.
It also happens to be the first letter for the word elephant in Thai. We asked people in Thailand, which happens to be the world's second largest market for ivory, to help raise awareness about the illegal ivory trade by trying to imagine a world without elephants. By symbolically erasing the letter Chor Chang from their names.
This campaign went viral, over a million people participated. They posted pictures of their name online without the letter Chor Chang in it on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram. And result was huge public pressure on the Thai government to crack down on the illegal ivory trade and to reform its ivory trade laws and they did. It was a big success.
Just two weeks ago here in this country our own federal government announced a new regulation, a final regulation to ban almost all commercial trade of ivory in the United States.
Something we've been working on for more than three years.
This regulation was partly made real by huge public outpouring of support for it.
In fact, WWF was able to generate more than a million signatures on an online petition, which is the most the governments ever received from an organization on a wildlife issue. And the significance of this regulation is not only because the U.S. is one of the top five ivory markets in the world, it has also prompted similar action in China, the world's largest market for ivory. In fact, one of our big breakthroughs last year was a joint commitment by President Obama and President Xi of China to take action against the illegal ivory trade and we're beginning to see that commitment implemented.
And I'm really happy to share that just a week ago China announced at the U.S. China strategic and economic dialogue talks in Beijing that they will announce by the end of this year a timetable for shutting down their domestic ivory market.
This is a huge deal for conservation.
If China makes good on its commitment and we will do everything we can to ensure that they do, it will be a game changer for Africa's elephants.
So inspiring people to actively participate in conservation issues is a really critical part of our strategy at WWF. And new technologies are making this possible in ways we never dreamed of before.
We first entered the app world, your world, three years ago with the launch of WWF Together.
On the iPad, it's now also on the iPhone. It's an app that introduces people to animals from around the world through stunning visuals and video, the art of origami and interactives that use embedded Apple technologies like the camera and the accelerometer.
We were thrilled to be invited to this stage in 2012, to accept the Apple design award for this app. Our work in close collaboration with Apple actually started last year with a conservation project in China to protect up to a million acres of forest.
That important work led to an initiative to engage hundreds of millions of people through the largest Earth Day promotion ever called Apps for Earth.
Hopefully many of you saw this, well actually some of you participated in a very significant way in this ten-day promotion led by Apple in April. Twenty four developers created unique app contents with conservation messages about the importance of conserving natural resources and wildlife and finding solutions to some of the most pressing threats to our planet.
People around the world could play Angry Birds 2 and shoot down greedy pigs who were overfishing the ocean. Or in Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes buy a pack of Ewoks to help save the forest moon Endor. Or challenge friends and family at Trivia Crack to test their knowledge of some of the most important issues of our time, such as climate change.
We reached millions of people with critical conservation messages.
And we also raised critical funding for conservation.
In fact, I am super excited to be able to share with you today that Apps for Earth raised over $8 million for conservation.
This is unprecedented, it's a huge deal for conservation and this critical funding will go to help advance some of the initiatives you've heard about today like doubling tigers in the wild and protecting forest and saving coral reefs.
It's a huge deal. We are so grateful to everyone who participated and especially, to Apple who made it all possible. If we can do this kind of thing together just imagine what we can do if we continue to apply our most creative ideas in support of conservation.
We're making important progress, but there's so much more to do.
To save everything we need everyone and there are a lot of critical challenges that the tech industry can help with.
There's no question that technology has a critical role to play in our vision for saving the planet.
We need your help to address the digital divide, the lack of connectivity in remote areas where conservation happens, which are often beyond the reach of the global system for mobile communication.
And we need your help to develop smaller, less expensive devices with longer battery times so that we can track all the users in a protected area, both the animals and the people, and transmit data in real time to conservation scientists and managers.
And as the technology of the Internet of things develops we need your help to deploy it in conservation. And we need your help to find the most innovative ways to reach people everywhere with compelling stories about conservation to get them onboard with our mission.
Nature and all the wonderful wildlife that is part of it is powerful and resilient and it will respond and rebound if given half a chance.
Technology can help do that, as can all of us in this room when we share ideas and work together.
And we at WWF look forward to that.
Looking for something specific? Enter a topic above and jump straight to the good stuff.
An error occurred when submitting your query. Please check your Internet connection and try again.