How innovation is helping wildlife and biodiversity
Ahead of World Wildlife Day, discover some of the most exciting innovations protecting animals and plants
According to scientists, we are today losing species between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate. And this alarming collapse in biodiversity has environmental and social implications, as well as ecological ones.
To protect the world’s animals from the negative impacts of international trade, the United Nations signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1973. World Wildlife Day (WWD) 2023, which takes place on 3rd March, marks the 50th anniversary of the Convention.
The United Nations describes WWD as ‘an opportunity to celebrate the many beautiful and varied forms of wild fauna and flora and to raise awareness of the multitude of benefits that their conservation provides to people.’ This variety can be truly extraordinary. In one academic study, 80 per cent of the 1,200 beetle species found on just 19 trees in Panama were new to science.
In 2023, the theme of WWD will be the importance of partnerships for protecting endangered species. But, at Springwise, we see every day how innovation also plays a crucial role in assessing and preserving biodiversity.
From an app that lets users identify all animal and plant species, to a method for producing charcoal that helps to protect cheetah habitats, discover some of the most exciting recent innovations helping the world’s animals and plants.
If we are to take effective actions to preserve biodiversity, it is important that we understand what species are out there. But this is easier said than done. Estimates for the number of species in the world vary from 2 million to 100 million, and scientists are continually discovering new and unexpected creatures. However, we are seeing innovators take a range of different approaches to assess biodiversity in a particular area.
One method is to use sound. A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a device that records soundscapes over long time frames, with minimal human intervention. These devices, which are low-cost and open-source, form a network of sound recorders. The data collected by this network is then uploaded to the Cloud, where it is automatically processed by a number of advanced machine learning algorithms.
A second approach is to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) released from organisms into the environment, such as through faeces, urine, slime, and scales. To collect this eDNA, researchers at ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research have developed a drone that can land on tree branches and collect samples.
Elsewhere, in 2022, the UK’s Nekton Foundation, along with the Government of the Maldives, conducted a month-long research project focused on surveying the island nation’s marine life from the surface to a depth of 1,000 metres. Very little is known about what lies beyond 30 metres of depth in the area, so the mission was, for the most part, charting the uncharted.
In addition to improving our scientific understanding of biodiversity, it is also important to raise public awareness about the natural world to garner widespread support for conservation policies. One organisation hoping to do this is Earth.com. The news site-cum-environmental-encyclopaedia has created an app, called EarthSnap, that enables users to identify plant and animal species via their mobile phone camera. The app also provides information about the local area and its wildlife, and features a social community, known as Earthchat, that connects users with other ecologically conscious individuals and organisations from all over the world.
Once we understand the level of biodiversity in the environment and raise awareness about its importance, we can take action. And innovators are doing so in a range of different ways.
Monoculture farming – growing just one type of crop in a field at a time – increases the efficiency of planting and harvesting but is bad for biodiversity and soil health. Researchers at the University of Göttingen and Kiel University have conducted research that demonstrates that planting in narrow fields with many edges helps retain a much wider variety of insect species. In a pilot project, wheat and rapeseed were cultivated in alternate strips as a mixed crop. This, the study found, allows insects to have a ‘complementary diet’ and not only supports wild bees, but also birds.
Elsewhere, Earthshot Prize finalist Hutan is helping larger animals co-exist with farms. The organisation builds natural ‘passageways’ across farmland for animals to pass through fragmented forests safely.
Finally, in Namibia, startup The Good Charcoal Company uses black-thorn acacia for its all-natural, hardwood charcoal. Black-thorn acacia is a highly invasive species that prevents native grasses and other plants and animals essential to the Savannah’s natural biodiversity from thriving.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
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21st February 2023