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A Google-Supported Plan Uses High-Tech Sensors To Keep Endangered Creatures Safe

It’s impossible to have park rangers protecting vast stretches of wilderness, but a network of cameras and sensors can watch and listen for gunshots and cars and then alert authorities.

Jonathan Baillie, the director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London, says that there are two main challenges in conservation: understanding the status of species and ecosystems (to know whether conservation efforts have been successful), and protecting these things on a global scale. That requires bringing out out the high-tech big guns.

The ZSL recently won a £500,000 Global Impact Award from Google to build out remote camera tracking systems, seismic sensors, and sound triangulation technology that can immediately notify park rangers and other authorities if someone shoots a gun, drives into a location where they aren’t supposed to be, or does anything else that could harm endangered animals.

These days, ZSL relies on first-generation cameras that transmit data over phone networks—a big limitation, since many remote areas don’t have stable network connections. The organization’s next-generation prototype cameras send images via satellite, ensuring that rangers never miss a poacher. That technology is currently being tested at a zoo in the U.K.; in the near future, ZSL plans to test it in Kenya with rhinos. "We want to try it with different species and different conditions," says Baillie.

The triangulation technology and seismic sensors will come next, aided by Google’s cash and expertise. ZSL was one of four winners—and the fan favorite—in the U.K. Global Impact Challenge, which gives money and Googlers’ time to nonprofits using technology for good (we wrote about the American version of the competition here). "They said 'We don’t want to just give funding, we want to help in any way we can,'" explains Baillie. "There are people [at Google] who will be advising us on certain areas."

At £250 each, ZSL’s cameras aren’t cheap. But Baillie is hopeful that technological advances will eventually bring the cost down. The situation is, after all, only getting worse for endangered animals. "As the value of species goes up, it’s like having a museum that’s open and people can take things," says Baillie. "This has never been needed more."

But if all else fails, there’s always de-extinction.