Satellites As Watchdogs

Although many people are concerned with the privacy issues arising from monitoring applications, such capabilities can be used to better protect our habitat and its animal inhabitants.

In this day and age, people worry about privacy. There seem to be “eyes” everywhere, thanks to satellites, drones, applications like Google Earth, easily tracked cellular phones, and more. Yet many good and bad goings-ons are still largely unmonitored across the globe. Reading news headlines, it often occurs to me that we would be best served taking some monitoring away from some places and applying it to others.

Using similar thinking, University of Surrey Professor Jim Lynch and his colleagues—Mark Maslin, Heiko Balzter, and Martin Sweeting—are stressing that a new system of satellites is needed to monitor the world’s forests (see “Sustainability: Choose Satellites to Monitor Deforestation,” Nature). Their concern is with illegal logging and how it threatens tropical forests and carbon stocks.

This spring, the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) working group of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be choosing a satellite system. That system has to comprise satellites that will be capable of mapping tropical forests at suitable resolutions and timescales. The recommendations, which were put forward from academics from Surrey, UCL, and Leicester, include two Earth observation systems. A constellation of five radar satellites must be built and launched to provide daily monitoring, thus detecting any illegal logging. Lynch and his colleagues are working to urge policy-makers to choose the right satellites and strategies.

Monitoring—by either drones or satellites—has been proposed or actually used as a solution for problems ranging from border patrol to weather monitoring. To me, however, one of its most hope-inspiring applications is in the protection of the habitat. In fact, I am hoping that monitoring can be leveraged to curb an issue that has literally sickened me of late—the poaching of African wildlife.

Even on protected lands, elephants and rhinoceros populations are being gutted to support the ivory trade. In recent years, the ivory trade had decreased due to an awareness of it being cruelly sourced from endangered animals. In Asia, however, ivory is still considered a status symbol. China’s growing economy has led to a great demand for ivory goods. Unfortunately, it also offers a source of income to poachers and others along the illegal trade route, who may have limited means of making money in places like Africa.

In creating technological solutions, the best thing we can do is hope to improve and protect the world and its inhabitants—human and animal. As the number of elephant and rhinoceros corpses continues to rise, I have often thought that technology should be capable of helping the too-few people policing this situation to better protect these animals. Between this push to fight deforestation and the tagging of wild animals using RF identification (RFID) and similar technologies, solutions exist. Hopefully, instead of seeing another headline about how their populations are being savagely decimated, we will see how technology is being used to protect them.

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