As a PhD Candidate studying chimpanzees in fragmented forests, I’ve often brainstormed with like-minded friends about potential solutions to threats facing great apes. Technology is usually interwoven into these potential solutions. Though there are no perfect answers, there are promising possibilities. Here’s my top ten list of realistic ways technology can be used to save great apes.
1. #GreatApeConservation #SocialMedia: The significance of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter cannot be overstated. Increasing awareness brings greater personal investment in conservation. For example, this tragic story about an orangutan was shared perhaps thousands of times through social media in recent weeks.
2. Call Me Maybe: Cell phones are ubiquitous in great ape range countries (see this recent article for more on their influence in Africa). They can assist education and information sharing, while text donation programs can be used for fundraising, as with this current effort by the Jane Goodall Institute and collaborators.
3. Engaging Youth: Interactive games, as well as HD and 3D movies, engage children and bring great apes to life onscreen. The recent movies Born to Be Wild and Chimpanzee are great examples. The earlier children learn about conservation issues, the more invested they may be later in life.
4. Drones of a Different Feather: Small drones have been tested for use in conservation. See this article explaining how.
5. Molecular Advances: Recent advances in molecular primatology greatly assist in monitoring great ape populations. Genetic data yield population size estimates and provide vital information on gene flow. Indeed, my PhD thesis relies on such data. Here’s an example of one application.
6. Great Primate-Saving (GPS) Technology: Though GPS actually stands for Global Positioning System, it is a critical tool for scientists monitoring great ape populations. In addition, already-existing smartphone apps allow for geo-tagging the locations of celebrities. This same innovation may allow people in great ape range countries to geo-tag ape sightings, thereby helping conservationists track populations.
7. Ape Trek: The Next Generation: Scientists also have a myriad of other tools at their disposal to facilitate research. From digital data recorders to laser range finders, primatologists can collect data quickly and efficiently nowadays. I can almost hear my advisor saying, “You know, back when I was in grad school, we had to…”
8. Better Alternatives: Primary great ape threats include bushmeat hunting and habitat destruction. Technologically advanced alternatives can abate these threats, however. For example, although palm oil production has led to the large-scale destruction of orangutan habitat, palm oil alternatives are possible.
9. Medical Advances: The U.S. is in the difficult position of supporting ape conservation while still performing invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees. Advances in medicine may soon make invasive research completely obsolete, however. See this great story on the development of microchips that mimic human organs. (Cool, huh?!)
10. Ecotourism Made Easy: Online travel reservations and the modern ease of travel make it simpler than ever to visit great ape habitats. This is critical since ecotourism, if managed well, is one of the best and most realistic options for helping conserve great ape populations.