Switzerland: Setting sights on conservation

Switzerland: Setting sights on conservation

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A GIS-based website allows visitors to learn more about threatened and endangered species

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that more than 40 percent of all living species are at the risk of soon becoming extinct. In fact, during the past decade, the IUCN declared the following 10 animal species extinct: the golden toad from Costa Rica, Yangtze River dolphin from China, Hawaiian crow, Pyrenean ibex from Spain, Spix”s macaw from Brazil (81 survive in captivity), Liverpool pigeon from Tahiti, West African black rhinoceros, black-faced honeycreeper from Hawaii, alaotra grebe from Madagascar, and Holdridge”s toad from Costa Rica.

For its studies and in an effort to slow down this alarming rate, the IUCN uses GIS to show the whereabouts of animals in the wild using an intuitive web map service.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the most comprehensive information source about the conservation status of wild species. To understand geographically the challenges facing individual species, IUCN launched its map browser (maps.iucnredlist.org).This interactive map service is built on Esri”s ArcGIS for Server. It allows visitors to easily explore the globe as they examine the abundance of scientific data available on these threatened and endangered species and see their ranges on a map.

The link to the species” observation page shows the site visitor the locations where Pantheraleo has been most recently reported and photos of the lion taken at these locations. A tool quickly identifies the limits of the lion”s distribution range. Users can analyse habitat by overlaying the provided basemap of a species range with protected range data layers.

In 2011, the entire Red List database contained assessments for almost 65,000 species. Of these, about 30,000 species records included a geologic reference and could be accessed through the map interface. Although the IUCN Red List database is quite large and complex, the online mapping portal displays results and maps quickly.

The portal also draws source data from iNaturalist, Encyclopedia of Life, Global Biodiversity Information Facility, ARKive, and World Database on Protected Areas from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Red List brings together these six different databases effortlessly and seamlessly in a JavaScript-based application designed by Blue Raster. In addition, the Red List portal links to thousands of geotagged wildlife images.

Challenges of growth
Before 2006, IUCN relied on its partners, Conservation International and NatureServe, to provide GIS services. But its scientists were working on a number of projects that required different types of analysis, so they built their own GIS capacity.

The project began with a grant from the Society for Conservation GIS, the non-profit organisation that supports the use of GIS and science for the conservation of natural resources and cultural heritage. New GIS products and licenses were added every year because more people wanted to use the tool. Soon, there were plans for a threatened species map viewer for the public. IUCN”s first attempt was to build an automated map application in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) that served static map JPEG files. Unfortunately, the system had trouble managing the large database. Generating and managing maps was extremely difficult, and it was obvious that this was not a sustainable solution.

GIS manager Vineet Katariya explored options for creating dynamic online environments. He learned about the capabilities of ArcGIS 10 for Server and some interesting mapping applications. “We just couldn”t keep publishing static maps. This technology had the functionality we wanted out of the box.”


The IUCN Red List map shows lion habitat and protected areas

Challenges met
Working with a developer, Katariya set up a simple high-performance map application. “This was a big change from our static maps, and people loved it,” he says. “They were able to explore our data, overlay data layers with other data and analyse species and protected areas.”

Building on this success, IUCN wanted to scale up so that its service would be more efficient and have higher performance. In 2011, IUCN asked Blue Raster to design a GIS solution that could handle its large, complex datasets and meet its performance requirements. Blue Raster worked with IUCN to enhance the data storage and index the complex species range and observation data. In early 2012, IUCN soft-launched its GIS portal, IUCN Red List Map, and since then, the site has been getting 2,000 to 3,000 hits every day.

The application was deployed with the latest JavaScript API version, which allowed enhanced user experience and performance for a global audience. The complex species range data was optimised for a web delivery that provides access to the entire catalogue of species ranges without sacrificing data display quality. Red List also leverages web services in open standards from several sources to provide a seamless web map that includes species observations (photos), range data and protected area intersections.

The entire system is hosted with Amazon Web Services on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). This hosting option enables IUCN to rapidly get its applications online. IUCN is planning to upgrade to ArcGIS 10.1 for Server and is excited about its new features, especially the faster map rendering engines and the dynamic map. With a global audience relying more on the IUCN Red List for this critical data, the mapping tool is proving to be a very powerful device for conservation.