Battling to maintain biodiversity: Techniques and tools for the future

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14 September 2021

When it comes to global biodiversity, technological advancement is making it increasingly easy to map, survey, catalogue and monitor the complement of life on this planet. How we continue to do that in a way that is ethical and equitable and that focuses on the most pressing conservation issues without resulting in knock-on effects is the question.

‘We cannot separate ourselves from nature: we are part of nature and depend on it for our lives and livelihoods.’ – Marseille Manifesto, IUCN World Conservation Congress, 2021

Last week, the IUCN World Conservation Congress (IUCN WCC) met in Marseille, France, to discuss the ongoing issue of how to reverse biodiversity loss and prevent further declines in biodiversity. Part of the IUCN’s proposed solution appears to be a technological one – with IUCN partnering with tech firm Huawei in the TECH4ALL initiative. Synthetic biology, which could see gene drives used to control species conservation within years, was also given the nod by the World Conservation Congress.

The Congress also committed to the lofty goal of protecting at least 30% of the Earth’s land and ocean by 2030, an agreement widely known as 30×30, along with a global moratorium on deep-sea mining, and a ‘nature-based recovery from the pandemic’ with nations encouraged to invest 10% or more of global recovery funds into nature.

The manifesto states: ‘The Congress calls on governments, NGOs and other actors to ensure that restoration benefits nature, aligns with science, recognizes and respects traditional and other knowledge systems, acknowledges the diverse use of ecosystems, and builds alliances between the biodiversity and climate change communities.’

Technology gains

As in most sectors, the past few decades have seen significant technological advancements that assist environmental studies and biological conservation. Techniques such as genome sequencing, environmental DNA, and DNA barcoding deepen our understanding of the diversity of life, especially for new species or those that live in remote or difficult-to-access ecosystems.

With better camera and acoustic monitoring technology, geo-locatable sensor tags, satellite and drone telemetric monitoring, and the development of large-scale databases that allow for uploading, analysis and data storage, such as the Atlas of Living Australia and iNaturalist, conservationists now have access to a suite of useful tools.

Advances in artificial intelligence, generative adversarial networks and pattern recognition are starting to enable machines to perform statistical analysis and complete tasks that might otherwise have taken scientists decades. Mapping and modelling are employed to forecast how actions could threaten species viability. These cost-efficient biodiversity assessment tools allow for easy identification and classification of organisms and a better understanding of the roles they play within ecosystems, but they also raise unique challenges.

I spy wildlife

Undoubtedly, Infrared and remote-sensing cameras have been a game-changer for the conservation of species such as the critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat (which spends some 18 hours of every day in a burrow) and the endangered spotted-tailed quoll. Camera traps are assisting Wildlife Queensland’s Quoll Seekers Network in monitoring the presence (or absence) of cryptic spotted-tailed quolls in South East Queensland, as the only other confirmed records during the past decade are of roadkill.

To understand the scale of the problem when it comes to just finding threatened species, let alone monitoring them, Quoll Seekers Network had 10 infrared cameras monitoring 24 hours a day over three months at Mt Perry, in the Flinders Peak region in 2020. Despite a total of 17,760 hours of survey effort, not a single quoll was detected there, although efforts are ongoing throughout the state.

The plight of the northern hairy-nosed wombat is just as ‘hairy’. Five decades ago, the species was confined to a remnant patch of habitat in Epping Forest National Park, near Clermont. By the 1980s, its numbers had plummeted to just 30 individuals. But with careful camera monitoring of burrows under the watchful eye of Senior Conservation Officer Alan Horsup, from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the population increased tenfold to around 300 individuals today. Much of what we know about the northern hairy-nosed wombat, such as how long young spend in the pouch, is the result of this camera monitoring.

Sometimes, it’s a case of merging the old with the new, as low-tech solutions – such as leaving sticky tape at the entrances of burrows to collect the DNA of individual wombats, or placing baits in tubing to encourage quolls to stand up so their sex can be determined – are combined with genetic testing to inform reproductive management. Despite the increase in numbers, the northern hairy-nosed wombat’s concentration in a single location is problematic and increases the extinction risk should catastrophe strike. In 2009, a second colony was established at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge, and further ‘insurance policy’ populations are a priority.

For the spotted-tailed quoll, Wildlife Queensland’s project team uses a combination of high and low-tech solutions, with the recent addition of wildlife detection dogs to sniff out traces of quolls in suitable habitats in the Mary Valley River Catchment. Quoll Seekers Network is also calling for landholders and members of the public to actively look for and report any quoll sightings.

The trees have ears

A trend towards increased portability and off-grid utility has resulted in lightweight telemetric trackers and transmitters, solar-powered or long-lasting remote cameras, and better audio-monitoring devices, such as the AudioMoth acoustic monitoring devices helping Wildlife Queensland’s Queensland Glider Network and Yellow-Bellied Glider Project teams locate Australia’s most vocal glider species, Petaurus australis, in the suburbs of Logan, South-East Queensland.

These clever devices capture vocalisations at even ultrasonic frequencies, which is crucial for bat and flying-fox conservation. Deploying AudioMoths in suitable eucalypt forest habitat allows Wildlife Queensland project managers to eavesdrop on the Australian bush, listening for the familiar screech and shriek of glider colonies.

Does every cloud have a silver lining?

Efforts to thwart poaching and wildlife trafficking and limit the detrimental effects of invasive species also benefit from new technologies, however controversial. Acoustic monitoring enables rapid response to gunshots in heavily poached African national parks, and the biofabrication of rhino horn, elephant tusk or shark fin has been proposed to flood the black market, making poaching far less lucrative.

CRISPR gene-editing, employed under a strict ethical framework, might also allow for long-term population management or even eradication of introduced carnivores such as feral cats, but such genetic engineering is not without risk to target species. Kent Redford, head of the IUCN working group is reported to have admitted, I’m scared about the potential applications of synthetic biology, before the vote at the IUCN Congress, which was passed in the affirmative for this form of genetic engineering.

Tech giant Huawei’s three-year partnership with the IUCN under the Tech4Nature partnership aims to allow ease of monitoring and evaluation of conservation goals and successes in 300 protected areas worldwide that are part of the  IUCN Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas, including several here in Australia, by 2023. The partnership already utilises blockchain, AI and digital technology to monitor populations of the endangered Hainan gibbon in China, and a real-time feed monitors and reports on coral reef data in north-eastern Mauritius.

Remaining on guard

Among Huawei’s tech solutions are Nature Guardian’ devices – solar-panelled black boxes with microphones that are positioned within the treetops. Recording constantly, they use AI to transit information 24/7 to cloud-based servers, monitoring local species and their environment. Such devices, which Huawei bills as ‘rapid alert systems for failing ecosystems’ are already in place in Chile’s Nahuelbuta Range to inform conservation management of the endangered Darwin’s fox. Offshore, ‘smart’ cloud-connected acoustic-detecting buoys can record whale and dolphin vocalisations within an 80 km2 radius.

Such technologies are preceded by earlier applications like EarthRanger, which was developed in 2017 to collate and synthesise environmental data that would assist rangers with conservation management. However, they do raise concerns over data use, privacy and human versus machine decision-making. Vulnerable species already have to deal with human encroachment, habitat loss and climate change without adding hurdles arising from hacking, corruption or misuse of data.

As more sophisticated tools and technologies become available, new scientific approaches for establishing effective conservation solutions will continue to emerge, often before the bioethics of such technology are considered.

While the IUCN World Conservation Congress is clearly aware of the role technology plays in the fight to preserve biodiversity, it is hoped that AI will remain a complementary tool in the arsenal available to conservation managers and will not supersede or reduce the funding available for local human on-ground efforts.

Learning more about local biodiversity initiatives

To learn more about the biodiversity strategies being implemented in your local region in Australia, visit your relevant state link for more information:

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