The State of Conservation Technology, WildLabs.net

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Welcome to year one of the WILDLABS State of Conservation Technology report! As global environmental challenges continue to escalate, understanding how to effectively leverage tech for conservation is critical. Through this research, we identify the tools with the highest untapped potential, uncover key constraints preventing progress, and pinpoint the most powerful opportunities for advancing the field. By synthesizing insights from conservation tech users and makers globally, our hope is to amplify a united voice to drive progress toward impactful solutions for the planet.

Technology holds the potential to help protect our planet by empowering conservationists to better understand and address the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. As technology evolves and becomes more accessible and user-friendly, tools like remote camera traps, acoustic sensors, and biologging devices are increasingly helping us study and manage diverse species and ecosystems across the planet, and people are starting to pay attention.

However, despite progress and growing enthusiasm, efforts to develop and implement conservation technologies are not advancing quickly enough to keep up with the emerging and escalating challenges conservationists face. To understand what's going wrong and what needs to change, we turned to those at the heart of the issue - the developers and conservationists working with these tools every day. Read on to discover the insights they shared.

About the research

In 2020, the WILDLABS team, like everyone else, was presented with the opportunity to take a step back. With fires ravaging the lands we grew up on and a global pandemic bringing life as we knew it to a grinding halt, the gravity of our work was tangible. As wildlife conservationists, the sheer scale and complexity of the challenges we face can be daunting, and times like these are stark reminders of their urgency.

Along with the escalating challenges that have arisen on the global conservation stage, recent years have also brought us hope in the form of innovation and inclusion. A new wave of conservation ideologies grounded in long-overdue holistic, community-based approaches and supported by low-cost, open-source technologies has reinvigorated the field. Big tech companies, research institutions, and conservation nonprofits are all investing in the crucial tools that hold so much potential to advance conservation on every continent - and in some cases, the results are astounding. Looking at the success stories, it would be easy to believe that conservation technology is powered up to save the day (and the planet); but as the go-to place for all things conservation tech online, the forums of WILDLABS.NET tell a more nuanced story.

Each year at WILDLABS, we survey our global community to check in on what they're doing, find out about the challenges they're facing and ask what support they need. Noticing that input from our community consistently described big-picture, systemic constraints spanning technologies, ecosystems, and geopolitical borders, we decided to formalize the process in 2020 to deliver a global, community-sourced assessment of the State of Conservation Technology. We also conducted focus group discussions with nearly 50 leading experts across seven of the most widely used technology applications in the field, to investigate our community’s experiences and insights in even more depth.

To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to formally capture the perspectives and needs of the global conservation technology community. Our hope is that the findings reported here and in our academic paper, recently published in Conservation Biology, will contribute to creating a more effective and sustainable conservation technology sector.

What is WILDLABS?

WILDLABS is the central hub for conservation technology online, connecting 5,500+ conservationists, researchers, field biologists, engineers, developers, and conservation technology experts from around the world. Our rapidly developing research program harnesses rich insights from this global community to inform effective technology development and capacity building, break down barriers and empower technologists and conservationists alike to transform the conservation landscape. With collaboration and innovation at the heart of our work, WILDLABS is the launching pad for meeting conservation’s biggest challenges with conservation technology’s boldest solutions. Visit our platform and YouTube channel to learn more about the community, and follow us on Twitter @WILDLABSNET.

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Who did we hear from?

We heard from 248 people across 37 countries. The highest number of responses came from the United States and the United Kingdom, followed by India, Australia, and Canada. Of these 248 respondents, 35% identified as female, 65% identified as male, and about half said they were active members of the WILDLABS community.

Overview of survey respondent demographics (N=248)

Gender Identity

Note: PA mgmt tools = Protected Area Management tools; eDNA = environmental DNA; ML = machine learning; Average proficiency = mean score on a scale from 1-5, with 1 being ‘novice’ and 5 being ‘expert’

In addition to using a wide range of tools, we found that people working with conservation technology were usually engaged in multiple ways. Over half of respondents said they were frequently participating in more than one role (i.e., as a user, developer, or tester), and over a quarter reported participating as all three. This suggests that while the conservation technology community may still be small, those involved tend to be versatile and highly engaged.

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Strengths and weaknesses

To get a sense of how the current toolkit serves the community, we asked open-ended questions about what is working well and what issues people are encountering with each of the technologies they use regularly. We coded these responses into categories, which are displayed below as the percentage of people who mentioned them for each technology group.