Humanity needs thriving ecosystems to survive, but with many of them in a precarious state, the future and wellbeing of everyone on the planet is at stake
According to the flagship Living Planet Report of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wildlife populations have plummeted by 68 per cent since 1970. And, today, the rate of extinction is estimated by scientists to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural rate of species loss.
Habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, overexploitation, and climate change are all contributing factors to this collapse in biodiversity. Action is being taken across the globe, but levels of success vary between regions. For example, the rate of deforestation in tropical regions has decreased in the past decade, and the area of forest cover has actually increased in Europe, Asia, and North America. However, by contrast, forest cover decreased significantly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa in the same period.
Solving the biodiversity crisis will require global coordination and policies such as the creation of protected areas. It will also require education and investment in sustainable forestry practices. But innovation can also play an extremely valuable role. From tree-planting drones to decoy turtle eggs that track poachers, innovators are helping to protect and preserve life on land.
Over the past two decades, the world has lost 100 million hectares of forest. Innovators are tackling this unsustainable trend from two different angles. A bioacoustic monitoring system developed in Brazil is preventing trees from being cut down in the first place. It does this by helping authorities to identify signs of illegal logging activities. But in cases where areas of forest need to be re-planted, Australian startup Airseed Technology is using AI and an army of seed-firing drones to achieve its goal of planting a total of 100 million trees by the year 2024.
Reforestation is not about pure numbers alone – trees need to be planted in the right place to provide the maximum benefit to the ecosystem. To tackle this complexity, new biotech from reforestation company Spades makes the process of tree selection more accurate and scientific. The technology—called Ecofit—triangulates local environmental conditions with the characteristics of different tree species to find an ideal match.
Desertification occurs when the biological productivity of arid and semiarid ecosystems is reduced. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, reports that the lives of 250 million people are affected by this environmental crisis. And, by 2045, as many as 135 million people could be displaced by desertification. Many of the causes of desertification are man-made, such as soil erosion, overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change.
Dutch designer Thom Bindels has developed a honeycomb-shaped cardboard structure that helps to tackle desertification by preventing soil erosion. And an internet of things powered app helps farmers to deal with drought – another cause of desertification. By forecasting periods of water stress, the app helps farmers better manage their water resources.
Without a wide range of different species of plants, animals, and insects we cannot have the healthy ecosystems we need for the air we breathe and the food we eat. But with around one million animal and plant species threatened with extinction, this diversity cannot be taken for granted.
To begin preserving biodiversity we must first collect data on the health of our ecosystems. But environmental monitoring has traditionally been costly and difficult to perform at scale. Now, startup NatureMetrics is using environmental DNA—DNA that is released by organisms into the environment in forms such as faeces, urine, slime, and scales—to scale up environmental surveys for rapid decision-making. And in addition to greater insight and data on biodiversity, we need to raise awareness and generate public support for measures that promote it. In New Zealand, a VR app aims to engage people with the protection of the country’s native bird population.
Once awareness has been raised, product alternatives that help to preserve biodiversity need to be developed and commercialised. For example, this year will see the launch of bee-free honey that will help to protect the nearly 20,000 global species of bee.
Perhaps the most visceral way in which humans threaten life on land is through poaching. One-quarter of the world’s species are traded illegally, and the global trade in wildlife—both legal and illegal—is estimated to be worth $4-20 billion (around €3.7-18.7 billion) per year.
Innovators are playing an important role in tackling poaching. For example, in Nicaragua, a conservation group has created an imitation sea turtle egg that is actually a tracking device. When placed within a nest of real eggs, this decoy egg can track smuggling routes in real time if taken by a poacher. And the Zoological Sociey in London has used Internet of Things devices and Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies to create a sensor and satellite-enabled network for responding to poaching threats in the world’s most remote national parks.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
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24th May 2022