So, the Earth is kind of in the mid­dle of this cri­sis that’s invis­i­ble to a lot of us. We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinc­tion. Animal extinc­tion rates are about a thou­sand times high­er than what the fos­sil record tells us should be the baseline.

Now, mass extinc­tions are not any­thing new. If you talk to any school­child they can tell you about dinosaurs or the Ice Age. But the dif­fer­ence about this one is that it’s the first one that’s caused by a sin­gle species. And that species are humans. Part of the prob­lem is that we’re los­ing the bat­tle against wildlife crime. The ille­gal wildlife trade is cur­rent­ly the fourth most-lucrative transna­tion­al orga­nized crime after drugs, weapon smug­gling, and human traf­fick­ing. Every day a hun­dred ele­phants are killed for their tusks. We’re los­ing rhi­no and shark species at a rate that they could be gone with­in this generation. 

So, why are we los­ing this bat­tle? It’s because the meth­ods that we use are decades-old and they’re inef­fec­tive. We depend on the mil­i­tary to do patrols where con­ser­va­tion nev­er real­ly ranks high on the list of things that they have to take care of. We set up small ranger or Coast Guard teams to patrol vast dis­tances with almost no resources. It’s no sur­prise that we’re not winning.

But we’re also liv­ing in this amaz­ing time. The speed of inno­va­tion has cre­at­ed tech­nolo­gies that have lit­er­al­ly reimag­ined indus­try after indus­try. Technology has improved almost every tool that we use on a dai­ly basis, and it’s time to start bring­ing this tech­nol­o­gy to use for good.

So, as an engi­neer who spe­cial­izes in con­ser­va­tion, I work on doing exact­ly that. Conservation tech­nol­o­gy seeks to bring these tools into fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing how we pro­tect this plan­et. So, some of my work has made use of inno­va­tions in mobile tech­nolo­gies, satel­lite data, drones, robot­ic ves­sels, and how we deal with apps and data to bring these inno­va­tions into conservation.

One of the key tools is what I like to call the Internet of Environmental Things. I’m sure every­one here’s heard of the smart home, or con­nect­ed cities. Well, this is tak­ing it one step fur­ther, those tools, and mak­ing con­nect­ed ecosys­tems. So, by plac­ing sen­sors into these vul­ner­a­ble areas, we can use per­sis­tent mon­i­tor­ing to make sure that these places are pro­tect­ed in a way that was nev­er before pos­si­ble. Instead of slow­ly mea­sur­ing the impacts of pol­lu­tants or oth­er human activ­i­ties, we can deploy these devices that watch over these areas with a fideli­ty and a fre­quen­cy that a sin­gle per­son can ever do, like Botswana’s Okavango Delta. It’s one of the most crit­i­cal African habi­tats, and one of the most amaz­ing places in the world. The Delta was recent­ly declared one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Actually, the one thou­sandth World Heritage Site. It’s home to key pop­u­la­tions of ele­phants, hip­pos, lions, and all those oth­er charis­mat­ic megafau­na that draws so many of us to Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s one of the most pris­tine wilder­ness­es on this planet.

The water from the Delta starts at a catch­ment in Angola and flows through Namibia, and then emp­ties out into the mid­dle of the Kalahari desert. A delta so big that it can be seen from space. Angola came out of a twenty-six year civ­il war that effec­tive­ly closed it off to the world. This war led to iso­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ties and some of the dens­est mine­fields on earth. But since the end of that, world devel­op­ment has gone ram­pant. This includes min­ing, agri­cul­tur­al schemes, oil devel­op­ment. Angola is now the third-largest oil pro­duc­er in Africa. All these activ­i­ties have the poten­tial to change the flood dynam­ics that makes the Delta possible. 

The water is the lifeblood of the ani­mals that call the Delta home. And this includes the largest remain­ing ele­phant pop­u­la­tion on the African con­ti­nent. The qual­i­ty of the envi­ron­ment out there is so impor­tant to the liveli­hoods of these ani­mals that we actu­al­ly call mea­sur­ing the water qual­i­ty mea­sur­ing the heart­beat of the Delta.”

Our sen­sor net­works mea­sure this envi­ron­men­tal qual­i­ty and can tell us, real-time, if some­thing’s hap­pen­ing soon enough that we can actu­al­ly go and do some­thing about it. The data gets post­ed to the web site, and through our open API, I can pull out my cell phone and I can see what’s hap­pen­ing there. Accurate pH and tem­per­a­ture mea­sure­ments. We can mea­sure the heart­beat of the Delta from any­where in the world.

So, next time you think about con­nect­ed devices, I want you to think about the Okavango. The Internet of Environmental Things. Let’s put a Nest inside of a nest. We’re work­ing to repli­cate this all over the world. And if you’re curi­ous to learn more about it, you can join us at intotheoka​van​go​.org. Our expe­di­tions go beyond just the Internet of Environmental Things. We share all the data we col­lect, includ­ing wildlife sight­ings, pho­tos, audio record­ings, bio­met­rics. All the data is freely open and avail­able to any­one through our web site. This beau­ti­ful web­site designed by Jer Thorp and his team at OCR.

So, over the course of the last few decades, tech­no­log­i­cal progress has been in many ways kind of the ene­my to envi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion. But we can now build tools that can help ben­e­fit every sin­gle ecosys­tem on this plan­et and final­ly con­nect us back to nature and its future. So, imag­ine a world where we’re no longer reac­tive, and we can use con­ser­va­tion tech­nol­o­gy to proac­tive­ly become pro­tec­tors of this plan­et. Imagine a world where we would be able to end human-caused mass extinc­tion. Thank you.

Further Reference

This pre­sen­ta­tion at the PopTech site.