3 Ways Your Conservation Technology Could Become a Shiny Pile of Junk, and How to Avoid It

Using technology in the field allows us to innovate new solutions to very old problems like human-wildlife conflict, but are you giving enough consideration to how your high-tech tools fit into long-term plans? Before deploying new technology in the field, conservation biologist Aditya Gangadharan offers some advice on ensuring you've selected the right tools for any project, location, and local community in this first article of his latest case study series. 

This article first appeared on LinkedIn, republished here with permission.

Date published: 2020/03/09

This is part 1 of a series. Part 2 is a case study on implementing an early warning system in Bhutan.

Conservation people often seem to have extreme reactions to using any technology more complicated than a camera trap in wildlife conservation applications: the luddite type ("we like to do things the hard way") to the overconfident tech bros ("technology is the ultimate savior"). Both are very obviously mistaken, but each has its own core of truth. In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to support a few different kinds of tech interventions in conservation (mainly to mitigate human-wildlife conflict), and I have learned a few lessons from them. So here are some ways your brand new conservation technology intervention can be reduced to a shiny pile of junk:

1. Your conservation technology will be reduced to a shiny pile of junk if it not the right answer for the particular local problem. If you have a hammer in your hand, everything starts to look like a nail! The technology should be selected so that it fits the local situation appropriately, rather than trying to fit the local situation to the technology at hand. And its important to remember the answer to 'what technology should I use' can well be 'none'; innovation does not necessarily equal use of technology.

A tin with a bell inside that can be pulled from your house to scare pigs - common all over South Asia

The mismatch between what is appropriate and what is offered, combined with overkill in terms of dazzling tech complexity, often leads to the entire idea being discredited even in places where it could have been useful. This is particularly something to keep in mind if you are a business; the goal of making a sale should not take precedence over whether the solution is actually useful.

2. Next, your conservation technology will also be reduced to a shiny pile of junk if the local people are not motivated enough to maintain it on their own. Every kind of intervention needs maintenance, whether it involves technology or not; even fence around a village to keep out elephants has to be maintained to be effective. So this means that the local administration/people/both have to take ownership and responsibility for it (and yes, that includes paying for maintenance - something people don't seem to like). To do that, they need to really be convinced that this is a useful intervention and not a stunt. More practically, they also they need to get skilled in how to do the maintenance (being able to take apart and put stuff back together is a good way to do this). How about viewing these as creating local employment opportunities, to get broader acceptance?

The staff of Samtse Forest Division, Bhutan taking apart and re-assembling early warning equipment sourced from Kyari Inc. as part of IUCN's CITES-MIKE project (more details here)

3. Here is another way your conservation technology could be reduced to a shiny pile of junk: if you are unable to manage the high expectations or deep fears that it may bring. People may believe (because the want to believe) that a new intervention is going to completely solve the problem, whereas conflict is normally only something that can be managed rather than completely solved. Unrealistically high expectations usually lead to disappointment, and interest (and maintenance) suddenly goes to zero. The flip side of that is fear, when the technology is not adequately explained or publicized, particularly in this age of Whatsapp rumours. Not an easy problem to tackle, and raises the need for general guidelines on ethics and safeguards in conservation technology. Of course they may deliberately destroy stuff, particularly when they feel their privacy is being infringed (or simply to steal the components or hide illegal activity).

Microcomputer modules stolen from an elephant-train collision prevention system in Sri Lanka

Using technology in wildlife conservation needs some major planning, all of which needs to be driven by teams of people who understand both the technical aspects and the social and ecological context.

I'll leave you with an admittedly old tweet (though I still think its funny), where an elephant turns my old conservation technology (camera trap) into a shiny pile of junk. What happened after the elephants foot crashed into the camera I leave to your imagination (or you can see this video).

Aditya Gangadharan is a conservation biologist focusing on large mammals. His background in data science, technology & entrepreneurship allows him to develop innovative conservation projects dealing with urgent conservation issues like mitigating human-wildlife conflict. Most recently, Aditya worked on transforming the IUCN MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) programme in South Asia. Aditya is a WILDLABS community member.

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