Future Tense

How the World Wildlife Fund Is Using Technology to Save Animals

A white rhino at the Johannesburg Zoo


On July 24, Future Tense and special guest Carter Roberts, the CEO and president of the World Wildlife Fund, hosted a screening of Avatar in Washington, D.C. This was the latest installment in Future Tense’s “My Favorite Movie” series, in which leaders in technology and science share a film that they think portrays issues in their field in a thought-provoking way. Roberts selected Avatar because of its strong environmental themes and the beautiful images of nature. Roberts also sat down to speak with Future Tense about how WWF is using cutting-edge technology to support its mission. Ariel Bogle: In recent months, the WWF began trials of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) where wildlife poaching is occurring. How did this come about? Carter Roberts: In the early 2000s, we thought we had generally solved the wildlife trade. There were only 20 or so rhinos poached a year in South Africa. Then about five years ago, rhino poaching in that country jumped from 20 to 150 animals, to 350, to 450. This year, it’s expected to surpass 650, and last year we estimate that we lost 30,000 elephants. Increasingly, we’re learning that this is not your father’s wildlife trade. It used to be for traditional uses, but now it’s the demands of a growing middle class in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and even here in the United States. Very sophisticated crime syndicates are involved, and there’s evidence that these groups are using the proceeds to finance their other activities. They have night-vision goggles, helicopters, and advanced weaponry. We need to acquire better, real-time information. That’s what led us to experiment with using UAVS to track poachers. Poachers often operate at night, and UAVs do a great job at tracking because of their infrared capabilities. A guy in the middle of a big park stands out like a sore thumb when you’re using infrared imagery. The ability to get that information and connect it to people on the ground means you can begin to track the poachers. Bogle: Where have you tested UAVS? Carter: We’ve undertaken trials in Namibia and Nepal. We’re trying to find the sweet spot. UAVs are not going to work in the field if you require a Ph.D. and a military background to operate them. You need simple technology that can be repeated and repaired by people on the ground. We wanted to experiment in places where we controlled more of the variables and then begin trials in areas where the conflict is hotter, where we’re losing the most animals. But we need to make sure we have the infrastructure ready. Bogle: Is there concern about using this technology where the political situation may not be stable? Is there sufficient oversight? Carter: We’re working on safeguards and filters to make sure that all the information we’re gathering on animals doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and become a guide for poachers. But you can’t use this technology without grounding it in the customs and the laws of the local country. It’s too sensitive. When I was in Nepal, we were releasing gharials [a small crocodile] with tracking devices into a river. The scientists told me with great amusement about an incident where the gharials floated into India. The Indian military saw the antennas and accused Nepal of spying on them using the animal. It’s ridiculous, but it gives you an idea of how sensitive it can be. However, the UAVs we’re talking about are like sophisticated hobby craft, not stealth fighters. They only have the ability to carry infrared technology and to transmit data to a person operating a very simple device on the ground. Bogle: What other technologies are the WWF considering? Carter: As part of our partnership with Google [the WWF is a recipient of its Global Impact Awards], we want look into how to use tagging and cellphone technology to track animals, employ UAVs to track poachers, and also find software that can put the data together in real time. A “brain” that would allow us to collate information on animals and poachers, so that we can deploy people quickly in the field. The collar we currently put on a rhino costs about $10,000. Imagine being able to use animal tracking chips and UAVs to download that information regularly, and cheaply, without satellites. Being able to gather this information systematically and on a local basis is just common sense. Bogle: Are you optimistic about the potential of this technology? Carter: The WWF has 6 million members worldwide. That’s great, but it’s not enough. The Pew Research Center has a set of polls that show that people are increasingly worried about climate change and the environment, but decreasingly convinced they can do something about it. That’s a horrific situation. It’s incumbent on us to engage people’s imaginations, and to provide them with the tools to act. I think technology has a significant role to play in that. This interview has been edited and condensed.