WWF: Can Digitization Help Conservation?

With extinction rates at 100x – 1,000x over historical magnitudes, pressing challenges of climate change, and an ever-growing footprint of mankind, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has its work cut out for it. With digitization creating new opportunities for many corporations, WWF is looking to harness technology and data to help achieve its mission of conservation.

It was December 2012 in Washington, DC, where the team at the World Wildlife Fund heard some exciting news. Google.org had just granted the NGO $5M to help stop poaching using technology [1]. While conserving the natural world and technology seem like an odd pair, there was a lot of hope that the data and connectivity could not only help prevent poaching, but help WWF optimize their processes, improve their visibility into wildlife, and provide innovative solutions to reduce illegal trade and human wildlife conflict.



World Wildlife Fund

Founded in 1961, WWF had a mission to “stop the degeneration of the planet’s natural environment and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature”. Today, they are the world’s largest conservation organization, with over 5 million supporters worldwide, putting over $240M of funds to work on key projects [2].

Projects range from public campaigns to influence decision makers to make better policy decisions, to corporate partnerships aimed at better sourcing, to on the ground endeavors that work with local communities to preserve wildlife.



Conservation in a Digital Age

Like how traditional businesses are using digitization to collect data, monitor, optimize processes, and provide real time feedback, WWF can and has leveraged these principles and applied them to conservation in the following ways:

1) Tracking and quantification of populations of species

A major way to both understand the magnitude of species and ecosystem endangerment and educate key decision makers, is to have accurate data. In the digital age, this can be done via a few methods [3][1]:

  • Sensors, cameras, and drones to watch and use image recognition to automatically identify and count specific species
  • Improved data mining technologies that can use existing and new global data sets to draw more accurate estimations and forecasts for wildlife migrations and populations
  • Improved satellite imaging and data to monitor extremely remote forests or oceans where local monitoring cannot occur


2) Monitoring of poachers and illegal goods

One of the most active areas of WWF is to combat illegal poaching and selling of endangered animals. In recent years, poaching has increased for many vulnerable species as demand has increased with developing countries gaining wealth.

WWF has used technologies to combat poaching including remote thermal cameras than can identify humans in protected regions and alert authorities [1]. Separately, WWF helps to improve databases of animal products such as fish to help traceability and enforcement of legal practices [4].

3) Real time alerts to farmers and villagers

Human wildlife conflict is often a cause for needless wildlife destruction or harm. For example, if a herd of elephants is actively destroying crops, farmers may act to protect their livelihood.

WWF is using remote acoustic monitoring to detect elephants from afar. The monitoring devices can tell if rumbles are caused by elephants based on pattern recognition and can be constantly refined via machine learning. When the monitors are activated, an instant message can be sent to rangers to intervene before the elephants get too close to human populations. [5]

4) Sharing and crowd sourcing conservation ideas

Using online databases and websites, data, research and lessons learnt from various conservation field tests can be shared globally, rather than kept in their own organizations. With no profits at stake, it is in everybody’s best interest to share ideas and solutions, and work collaboratively to solve problems.

In November 2015, WWF in partnership with Google.org and ARM, launched WILDLABS.NET, a platform that can connect thought leaders and technologists in this space to share and create technology-based solutions to help conservation efforts [6].



Next Steps

WWF’s efforts so far at using digitization have been commendable with a full focus on how technology today can preserve nature for tomorrow. Looking forwards, it would be harder to push forwards with technology innovation given the funding constraints of an NGO. It would be wiser to focus efforts on both using naturally emerging technologies and crowd sourcing solutions. Based on technology waves of today, this may include new solutions with improved drones, self-driving vehicles, big data driven forecasting, and improved satellite technology.





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[1] – “Wildlife Crimes Technology Project”, WWF Website, http://www.worldwildlife.org/projects/wildlife-crime-technology-project

[2] – WWF Website (Budget and Overview)

[3] – “WWF Tech Integration Helps Namibia Tackle Wildlife Crime”, WWF Website, http://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/wwf-tech-integration-helps-namibia-tackle-wildlife-crime

[4] – “Traceability Principles for Wild-Caught Fish Products”, WWF Report, http://assets.worldwildlife.org/publications/796/files/original/WWF_Traceability_Principles_for_Wild-Caugh_Fish_April_2015.pdf?1430410438

[5] – “Establishing the Fundamentals for an Elephant Early Warning and Monitoring System”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4558827/

[6] – “How mobile crowdsourcing protects wildlife and habitats”, Cisco Newsroom, https://newsroom.cisco.com/feature-content?type=webcontent&articleId=1757845


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Student comments on WWF: Can Digitization Help Conservation?

  1. Amanda,
    So glad you wrote this. After the climate change challenge, it was hard not to feel a bit fatalistic about the planet. It’s nice to be reminded that the future isn’t all bad, and that tech can be used to keep biosystems thriving. As you mentioned, technological solutions are extremely important in maritime environments, as these regions are hard to reach/monitor without satellite, drone, and networked technologies. Illegal fishing has been a particularly thorny problem for a long time, but advanced technologies (supported by companies like Google) are really helping to change the rules of the game.


  2. Amanda, it is so exciting to see drone technologies used for such high impact, high need areas. I think drones are a great way to monitor large swaths of land in a relatively cheap manner. Furthermore, companies such as FLIR are developing more sophisticated thermal imaging technologies to search for unwanted intruders in protected environments. What’s next though is to find a way to enforce the situation. I am afraid given how large these areas are that even if a drone could find poachers, rangers would not be able to respond in a timely manner. Perhaps having camera capture technology or even green lasers that confuse / stun poachers in a non-lethal manner mounted on the drones would help.

  3. Amanda, thanks for your article. Very interesting to know how technology is also helping humans take care of our planet. I think that WWF’s mission and efforts are incredible! This organization is fighting to create a world in which humans and other species can live together in a sustainable way. WWF efforts against poaching using digitalization are remarkable; however, I think that we must do much more.

    According to National Geographic (1), central Africa has lost 64% of its elephants in only one decade. This implies that by 2025 we could have no elephants. This horrible situation is happening because the ivory trade in Asian countries has grown to become a billion-dollar business. With such high incentives and low budget to fight poachers, chances are low for elephants. Having said that, I like a lot that Google.org made a $5M USD contribution to the cause, but just to put things in perspective, this investment vs a billion-dollar business is like a drop in the sea. So, besides technology appliances to protect elephants (which are great and very important), I think we should focus on eliminating this market. Ivory should be illegal everywhere! In my opinion, the most profitable investment we could make is one that eliminates the root cause. In the meanwhile, great to know that digitalization will help our gray giants!

    (1) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140818-elephants-africa-poaching-cites-census/

    1. You make a good point about eliminating the root cause. Technology can play a part in identifying where the poaching took place; by tracing the chain up to the markets where ivory is traded, perhaps the sale and use of ivory can be reduced and eventually eliminated.


  4. Thanks for writing about this Amanda! This is a topic that is extremely dear to me and it is great to see how drones can be used for such a noble purpose. I wanted to add another angle to the topic of digitization and conservation. I think that a more connected world drives tourism for a myriad of reasons and one such such I have often found is eco tourism. With Eco tourism, the locals are incentivized to protect wildlife which would otherwise become targets for poaching. There is an interesting article here – http://africageographic.com/blog/richard-branson-believes-big-game-worth-alive/ where even the likes of Richard Branson have commented that wildlife while it is alive and can attract tourism, is worth more alive. I think more connected world gives us the platform to educate and broadcast such messages, attracts more tourism and helps drive initiatives that ensure greater good.

  5. While I agree with SSSSS and BMC comments around elimination of the market for illegal wildlife goods – perhaps there is a opportunity for the WWF to use technology to help shut these markets. National geographic used GPS trackers in artificial ivory[1] to trace the movement of ivory. Might it be feasible for the WWF to implant some kind of such trackers in the tusks of elephants/other such animals in high risk areas. This could serve as a very effective detterent to poachers and bring the WWF to the forefront of combating the poaching menace.


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