Most people would agree that since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the relentless march of technology has – in an overwhelming majority of cases – come at the expense of the natural world that we inhabit. The world’s addiction to fossil fuels has been identified as a major cause of global warming. The rise of industrial agriculture continues to threaten natural ecosystems across the world, and precious wildlife – including South Africa’s dwindling rhino populations – are forced into smaller and smaller areas to make room for production expansion.
But today, we live in the Digital Age – sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We also live in a time when people are more aware than ever of the impact humanity is having on the planet and its other residents, and innovative technologies are emerging that promise to help turn the tide against the ecological issues caused by their predecessors. Here are just three of the most promising of these technologies, now making waves in the world of conservation.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
A growing reality is that everything, from your smartphone and your home assistant, to your watch and your fridge, is connected to the internet. This all-encompassing connectivity is collectively referred to as The Internet of Things, and it’s changing just about everything about how we interact with technology – and conduct conservation.
Sensors, connected cameras, drones and more – essential IoT tools in many sectors, from agriculture to retail – gather, process and deliver information in real-time over the cloud, making them indispensable in collecting data for a variety of conservation activities. Just consider the technology being used by The Bee Corp.: tiny solar-powered sensors that are able to keep track of, and report back on, the health of individual bee hives. This approach is keeping honey farmers productive and helping address the worrying trend of Colony Collapse Disorder, which threatens bee populations around the world. Also consider the connected sensors that help biologists track the movements of animal populations around the globe – from whales to geese, turtles to wildebeest, and everything in between.
Sensors embedded in rhino horn have even been used to track and better understand the black-market supply chain that sees this precious commodity move across the world unnoticed. With a little creative thinking, there’s no end to the potential benefits that IoT devices could bring to the fight for ecological conservation.
DNA and Bio-Engineering
Advances in DNA technology have gone a long way in helping scientists understand genetic diversity on earth in an effort to protect our fauna and flora. But they are also presenting us with some fascinating solutions when it comes to many diverse conservation- and sustainability-related issues.
The advent of genetic modification has given rise to agricultural crops that require less water, less labour, and are more resistant to pests. They are even giving certain foods added nutritional value to combat nutrient deficiencies in the developing world – as in the case of so-called “Golden Rice.”
Genetic forensics, both in the conservation and law-enforcement fields, is also being increasingly used to track endangered wildlife products and apprehend those involved in their illegal trade. One notable victory was the arrest and successful conviction of a Kenyan ivory-trafficking kingpin, in which genetic forensics around the ivory in question played a vital role.
And, of course, there’s the now-famous case of the company that aims to 3D print genetically-perfect rhino horn – in a bold attempt at flooding the market and lowering the value of genuine horn. These efforts hold great promise in ending the scourge of rhino poaching in Africa.
As our knowledge of genetics and DNA continues to improve, there’s no telling what powerful new tools these fields of study might have to offer the conservation community.
Better known as the technology that’s behind the meteoric rise of cryptocurrency (it is, after all, the tech that powers Rhino Coin), blockchain’s potential applications in other arenas are only now really being explored. In the conservation sphere, blockchain’s value mainly lies in its function as a decentralised ledger – a record of transactions that emphasises data safety, accountability and transparency, making it the ideal technology for charitable causes and so-called “crypto-philanthropy.”
Charities and NGOs are increasingly accepting crypto-donations, and some even set up their own currencies in order to accept donations and investment – allowing them to keep an eye on every penny, where it’s coming from, and what it’s being used for. Because of the decentralised and transparent nature of cryptocurrency, many people see blockchain as an alternative to traditional banking. Instead of needing a bank or some other institution to verify the transfer of money, you can use blockchain and eliminate the middleman.
Yet another advantage of such transparency is that blockchain technology is increasingly being applied in situations where a rock-solid knowledge of supply chain and highly stringent controls are necessary. To help keep illegally-obtained diamonds out of their operations, for example, diamond companies like De Beers are spearheading blockchain-based solutions that help track every stone and every owner along the way – from mine to finger. This will be an essential tool in the fight to protect Africa’s rhinos as well, if a well-regulated and legal trade in blood-free rhino horn is ever fully implemented.
The bottom line
With greater public knowledge about issues of conservation and sustainability, and the innovative capabilities to dream up ever-more-creative solutions, technology now represents one of the most promising tools to turn the tide on just about any environmental issue – from global warming and wildlife trafficking to coral bleaching and deforestation. But like any tool, it’s only as useful as the person using it.
It will all be down to human ingenuity, and the drive to do better by our planet, that will dictate how much of a difference technology makes to the future of the planet and its inhabitants.