Looking up: The future of technology and conservation 

Department of Conservation —  12/04/2023

Reading the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) new climate report (AR6), it’s easy to be reminded of the satirical film “don’t look up”. When it comes to climate change we absolutely need to “look up” even when it is uncomfortable to do so. The same is true of the biodiversity crisis. 

Viewing live drone footage of a target wetland. Heat signatures can be investigated if they appear to be related to the target species, such as bittern or harrier. The towel and blanket help reduce glare on the screen.  
📷: Henry Caley

Together with Toitū Te Whenua Landcare Information New Zealand (LINZ), we have released a long-term insights briefing, or LTIB as it is commonly known. This was a new initiative put in place by the public services commission in 2020 and encouraged central government to “think about medium and long-term trends, risks and opportunities”. In other words, it was time to look up. 

While we can’t predict the future with any certainty, we can use ‘futures thinking’ to be better prepared and plot (or imagine) preferred pathways we might choose to navigate. 

For the inaugural LTIB, we teamed up with LINZ to explore how technologies and data might aid us in protecting and preserving the biodiversity and taonga of Aotearoa.

This LTIB is not government policy, nor is it a certainty that we will walk that pathway, but embedded in the document is a discussion that we need to have. 

At its core the problem is a simple one – when tackling the biodiversity challenges that we face we can’t be in all the places, all the time, doing all the things. Because of this we have data deficiencies, and because of these deficiencies, it can be tough to make good decisions. 

There is no silver-bullet fix to the biodiversity challenges in front of Aotearoa but part of the solution lies in innovative use of technologies and data.  

A new population of Clutha flathead galaxias (Nationally Critical) was discovered in a DOC eDNA survey of a stream in Otago in 2022. The population was surveyed and measures to protect the fish from trout predation were put in place. Project team is from DOC, Otago Regional Council, Fish & Game, Wai Wānaka and the University of Canterbury.
📷: DOC

Our LTIB focuses on three emerging areas:

  • remote sensing
  • use of artificial intelligence or AI
  • use of genetic technologies

While these have been used by us (and others) to explore biodiversity, the techniques are a long way from being fully developed and/or interwoven into our science, mātauranga, data systems or budgets.  

Remote sensing

From high-resolution satellite images and drones through to precise GPS co-ordinates there is huge potential to monitor, measure and respond to data obtained at a distance. Our LTIB explores recent innovations and how they might be scaled and shared. From finding birds using their heat signatures detected by drones, through to measuring the extent of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous in lakes by satellite, there is huge potential in the area of remote sensing.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Gabriel this was brought into sharp focus as agencies collaborated on commissioning satellite imagery for recovery, models and intelligence gathering.  

Artificial Intelligence, AI.

The arrival of ChatGPT on the scenes has raised the awareness of AI and its potent potential to gather complex information, find patterns and even build models. As we collect information on biodiversity we should be aware that the data is useless until we actually use it. Increasingly there are layers and layers of data that we want to overlay on each other. The ability of AI to make sense of a tangle of data/metadata is an area of huge potential for biodiversity monitoring and decision making.  

Genetic Technologies

Reading, and potentially modifying, genetic codes opens up a new tool in how we monitor and protect biodiversity. In 2022 we conducted biodiversity surveys at over 400 sites taking 1324 environmental DNA (eDNA) samples. The method involves reading DNA ‘barcodes’ that are shed into the environment to produce an ultra-detailed list of living organisms from microbes to mammals.

This section of the LTIB explores the less controversial aspects of DNA technology (e.g. eDNA ‘barcoding’) through to the polarising debates on gene editing. The public submissions to the LTIB demonstrated how polarised Aotearoa is on the topic of gene editing – more kōrero is needed on specific applications of this emerging technique (e.g. feral animal control). 

Drone being piloted with a hand-held controller. The drone carries thermal and visual light cameras, weighs around 900g, and can reach 72km/h.  
📷: Craig McKenzie. 

It is important to stress that developing new tools does not necessarily mean discarding the old ones. Rather, it necessitates careful interweaving of approaches to achieve our goal of a thriving biodiversity, described in Te Mana o te Taiao Aotearoa – New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy. 

We encourage you to read the LTIB and think about how these innovations, both now and in the future, might benefit our biodiversity from the mountains to the sea. Granted, there is more kōrero to be had about how to best use the technologies. But there is a real opportunity to use these tools to listen to nature more effectively with the end-result being enhancement of conservation decision-making and action. 

Read the full Long Term Insights Briefing