Technology makes it easier to study wildlife, but access isn’t equal
- The study of primates and other wildlife species in the wild has long been a challenge due to the diversity of their habitats and the limitations of established research designs.
- But a pair of recent studies highlight how the emergence of new technologies, ranging from camera traps to drones, have made the job easier in recent years.
- Yet exorbitant costs and a lack of technical know-how mean the technology is not readily available to researchers around the world.
Studying primates in the wild has always been a difficult task.
Alexander Piel knows challenges all too well. Since 2005, the biological anthropologist has been studying primates in countries such as Tanzania, Madagascar, Kenya and Senegal. On the one hand, the great diversity of habitats has made it difficult to monitor them: while some live in dense tropical forests, many others are found in savannahs; some are entirely terrestrial, while others live in trees. In addition to the constraints imposed by location, there are significant gaps in the ability to monitor animals when researchers are simply not around.
“The data followed the patterns of the researchers,” Piel, a lecturer in anthropology at University College London, told Mongabay in a video interview, referring to how data is typically collected during the day, the most of them being what field researchers can detect themselves through binoculars and cameras. “We didn’t know much about what was going on when we weren’t there, so we had big spatial and temporal gaps.”
However, the emergence of new technologies in recent years could change the way primate data is collected and analyzed by researchers. A study co-authored by Piel and published earlier this year in the International Journal of Primatology summarizes some of the tools – ranging from camera traps to drones – that researchers have adopted to provide more efficient, continuous and non-invasive monitoring of primates.
“Primate conservation, and vertebrate species in general, is experiencing a revolution in the way data is obtained with the advancement of emerging technologies such as the use of drones, AI and IoT,” Geison Mesquita, a biologist and environmental consultant who co-authored another study on the rise of technology in wildlife tracking, tells Mongabay in an email interview.
Eyes and ears in the forest
Camera traps and passive acoustic monitoring – cameras and microphones – have helped provide “eyes and ears” in the forest, both of which are tools that enable long-term monitoring as they can be deployed over long periods of time. Drones integrate both functions and offer researchers valuable new insights. Armed with infrared-triggered cameras, they also made it easier for researchers to spot primates or other wildlife that live in trees.
Faecal samples have also long been used to study primate genetics and diet. But because sample analysis labs are often located far from where the field work is done, a lot of time and money is spent storing, processing and transporting samples. The emergence of portable genomics labs has helped solve many of these problems, facilitating new ways to store and analyze samples.
But despite these and other advances, researchers interviewed by Mongabay all say they approach new technologies with caution. The limits, says Piel, are multiple.
First of all, not everyone has the training or the means to use new technologies. Piel says that while acoustic sensors are very simple to set up and use, camera traps are not. “You have to configure them a certain way and the menus are often only in one language and so you start to see these barriers of who can use the technology,” he says. The energy-intensive nature of camera traps also makes it imperative to constantly check their operation.
Other financial, technological and often political constraints apply to the use of drones. “You get what you pay for, and the less you pay, the more likely you are to lose your drone if you hit a tree,” says Piel. “Also, they carry technology that is not cheap, like a lidar sensor or a camera that takes high-resolution images of a forest. So if you lose the vehicle, you also lose your sensor and, with him, your data.
Too much data to process
Apart from the high cost and technical barriers, there are also obstacles to effectively analyzing and using the huge amounts of data collected through the use of new technologies. “The amount of data we are now generating completely exceeds our ability to analyze it, as biologists at least,” Tara Stoinski, president and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, told Mongabay in a video interview. “And so you’re just sitting on troves and troves of data.”
While tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning have made analyzing data much easier, Stoinski says it’s sometimes difficult to form collaborations with the right people who have the technical know-how to analyze. the data. “If those synergies aren’t already established, or if you can’t create them for any number of reasons, then suddenly the technology isn’t as useful anymore,” she says. “You might as well have spent that time walking in the forest, because at least you have your data.”
Stoinski insists on the need to establish more collaborations between researchers in the field and those who have the technical knowledge. Often the skills or technology needed to perform the analysis are lacking in the countries where the fieldwork is carried out. This means that data and samples must be exported, often to labs and facilities in Europe or the United States. southern countries.
Mesquita, with the Baguaçu Institute for Biodiversity Research in Brazil, agrees. He cites cases he has seen where prohibitive cost and technical difficulties have prevented adoption of the technology for wildlife conservation. In Brazil, he says, very few conservation initiatives involve the use of GPS tracking, let alone drones, due to financial constraints. Increasing the availability of these technologies to researchers around the world through cost reduction and ease of use is a challenge, he says, that needs to be addressed urgently.
“Many developing countries, where large areas of the planet’s biodiversity are typically found, are still unable to utilize these technologies,” Mesquita says. Given the unfolding biodiversity crisis, researchers cannot afford to waste any more time trying to find ways to collect and analyze data, he says. “The speed with which biodiversity loss has happened means we need to be more practical and quick to get biodiversity data.”
Piel, AK, Crunchant, A., Knot, IE, Chalmers, C., Fergus, P., Mulero-Pázmány, M. and Wich, SA (2022). Non-invasive technologies for primate conservation in the 21st century. International Journal of Primatology, 43(1), 133-167. doi:10.1007/s10764-021-00245-z
Mesquita, GP, Mulero-Pázmány, M., Wich, SA and Rodríguez-Teijeiro, JD (2022). A hands-on approach with drones, smartphones and tracking tags for potential real-time animal tracking. Current zoology. doi:10.1093/cz/zoac029
Banner image: A red-tailed lemur in Madagascar. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.