4 Surprising Ways Technology Is Saving Wildlife




The following article was published in the Fall 2016 issue of iPhone Life magazine. Learn how to get the most from your iPhone by clicking here to subscribe. 

When we think of today’s advancements in technology, we tend to think about how technology is destroying the natural world, not bettering it. We think of how industrial development leads to deforestation, and how avid consumerism and excess waste pollutes the environment and takes a toll on natural resources. And in a lot of ways, we're right. After all, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science, the earth is entering its sixth mass extinction, and we’re the ones to blame. We are experiencing a human-driven loss of many of our favorite species, with a third of all vertebrates and 45 percent of invertebrates now classifi ed as endangered—with amphibians taking the brunt of the blow.

Related: How Modern Technology Is Revolutionizing Media Coverage of Social Injustice

Fortunately, scientists haven’t given up hope for our planet, suggesting that a greater focus on conservation could prevent us from losing many of the Earth’s species—and technology could play a key role in that. Today, scientists and engineers around the globe are working hard to use technology in a positive way that leaves the earth better off for future generations. Certainly the rise of technology has had its negative consequences, but it is also helping pave the way to a better world, and perhaps in ways that you least suspect. The following examples illustrate how scientists are bridging the gap between technology and conservation.

Documentaries Change Worldviews

Videos are an effective platform to educate people worldwide about issues that matter. GoPro, which creates smartphone-controlled sports action cameras, excels in this area, making it possible for everyday people to create high-definition videos that place the viewer in the center of the action. The company has created a series of short videos and documentaries, many of which aim to demonstrate what you can do with GoPro’s products as well as raise awareness regarding important issues. These videos have featured everything from people swimming with humpback whales in the ocean to conservationists releasing rehabilitated vultures back into the wild.

One of the most moving videos I’ve seen by GoPro is titled “Lions—The New Endangered Species,” and features lion conservationist Kevin Richardson interacting with lions on a South African preserve. In it he discusses the dangers of habitat loss and the future of Africa’s big cats.

“When a species disappears from a habitat, one’s got to look at why,” Richardson notes in the video. “Talk about any species and you’ve got the same dilemma: habitat loss.... Even in reserves, the area’s just not big enough.”

In the video, Richardson has a GoPro mounted to his shoulder, allowing you to see the lions through his eyes. The heartwarming way that the lions nuzzled Richardson’s face and wrestled with him playfully changed my perspective and created an instant connection between me and the subject at hand. Immediately I cared about their future, and I imagine other people felt the same. For the first time, I considered a world without lions, and that idea saddened me. This experience made me realize something important: our ability to record information and share it with others allows us to connect with the world in an unprecedented way. And that, in itself, is pretty remarkable.

Drones Spot Poachers in Wildlife Reserves

Yes, drones are, in fact, used for more than combat missions or snapping aerial shots of your front lawn and freaking out the local pigeons. Conservationists are using them to help fight poaching, monitor species' population, prevent deforestation, and survey habitat in areas that are difficult to access by foot. Previously, rangers had to gather data and survey land in person, a job that was time-consuming, expensive, and oftentimes dangerous. Drones are particularly useful in the fi ght against poaching, as they are able to easily scope out and locate intruders without disturbing wildlife, making it easier for rangers to track them down before any elephants, rhinos, or tigers have been killed. In 2014, drones dramatically decreased poaching in a Kenyan wildlife reserve by up to 96 percent—an incredible feat! And after receiving a $5 million grant from Google in 2012, the World Wildlife Fund began testing drones in remote areas in Africa and Asia where endangered species are most vulnerable to poaching and trafficking.

“We need solutions that are as sophisticated as the threats we face,” WWF President Carter Roberts said in a statement. Of course, it is argued that drones can also cause more harm than good. In 2014, the US National Park Service banned the use of drones in parks after a drone disturbed a herd of bighorn sheep in Zion National Park in Utah, causing the sheep to scatter and separating some of the young from their mothers. But many conservationists remain optimistic about the role that drones play in managing wildlife. When it comes down to it, drones are still a relatively new technology. I imagine a future in which drones are much quieter and can gather data from much farther away. For now, this technology is already helping better the planet in a way we never knew possible, allowing scientists access to remote locations and the ability to observe wildlife from a safe distance. 

Text Messages Save Elephants in India 

Believe it or not, in India, the use of text messaging is allowing humans and elephants to peacefully coexist in a way they never have before. Valparai, a town located in South India, is currently home to century-old tea and coffee plantations that stretch across thousands of acres. These plantations are nestled in between patches of protected forests, which means elephants often cross the plantations to reach forests on the other side. Unfortunately, that means elephants also have run-ins with humans—and these encounters can sometimes turn deadly, for both parties. Between 1994 and 2013, 41 people were killed by elephants, not because elephants are naturally violent, but because they attack if they feel they are in danger. On top of all that, elephants have been known to damage property and raid food storage, which neither management nor the plantation workers have taken lightly. 

As peoples’ tolerance toward the elephants decreased, the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF)—a wildlife and conservation research organization—decided it was time to take action. NCF realized that people needed some sort of warning system to alert people of elephants nearby. The outcome? An early warning system that sends text messages to residents’ phones when elephants have been spotted in the area. Since the implementation of the new system, not a single person has died, which is good news for elephants too, since humans have been known to lash out in anger toward elephants that have destroyed property or hurt loved ones.

Due to the success of this project, it’s likely to be replicated in other regions where confl ict with wildlife is an issue, thereby allowing people to more comfortably coexist with nature. And here you thought texting was just a convenient way to get ahold of your friends and family!

Virtual Reality Helps Scientists Protect Jaguars

Much of what you know about virtual reality probably involves gaming in one form or another. But did you know that virtual reality could soon play a key role in helping us protect endangered species from extinction? That’s exactly what Kerrie Mengersen, professor at Queensland University of Technology, aims to do.

Mengersen and her team sought out endangered jaguars on a recent expedition to Peru, where the big cats are dwindling in numbers due to habitat loss and hunting. While Mengersen was there, she set up multiple GoPro cameras in popular jaguar habitats, allowing her and her team to record 360-degree video. They then strung these clips together to create an immersive virtual-reality experience for experts and the public alike, many of which can be viewed using the JaguarVR app for Android phones when wearing Google Cardboard or Oculus devices. Mengersen’s mission is simple: to ultimately educate the public and instill an appreciation for the environment. You might not actually be in jaguar habitat, but it kind of feels like you are, and that can switch your perspective.

But virtual reality also has another purpose: it allows experts to view footage from miles away and determine whether any jaguars are in the area. By immersing themselves in the environment, scientists can gain a better understanding of the jaguar population simply based off of the signs present—like whether there is water nearby or whether there are fruit trees that would attract prey. Mengersen also hopes that the videos, along with mathematical and statistical modeling, could determine which areas of Peruvian land could serve as potential jaguar corridors—i.e. strips of land that jaguars use to travel from one area of forest to another.

What the Future Holds

The rise of technology can feel daunting when we consider the repercussions it is causing for the environment and our wildlife. But it’s important to remember that technology, in itself, is not all bad. The future of the planet depends on how we use technology, not if we use it, and that knowledge is already creating a positive shift in the world.

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Author Details

Rheanne Taylor's picture

Author Details

Rheanne Taylor

Rheanne Taylor is the Video Production Manager of iPhone Life. Before discovering her love for video production, Rheanne was the Managing Editor. In her 6+ years at the company, Rheanne has helped produce 19 issues of iPhone Life magazine, edited countless podcasts, and produced over 1,000 educational videos showing people how to get the most out of their Apple devices. She continues to be a regular contributor to iPhone Life magazine, using her 10+ years of photography experience to create content primarily covering photography tips and photography gear. Rheanne is a passionate photographer both in and outside of work and loves to remind people that they don't need a fancy camera in order to capture beautiful shots—her most recent photography show featured work mainly shot on an iPhone!

Rheanne holds a bachelor's degree in Literature & Writing from Maharishi International University. When she isn't overseeing video content, she loves drinking tea, holding up traffic by taking entirely too many photos of bugs, and hanging out with her Instagram famous cat Wesley (IG: wesley_the_pirate_cat).