As the sole remote sensing crusader of WWF, Aurelie C. Shapiro believes that remote sensing and GIS technologies can go a long way in the fight for conservation
How does WWF use remotely sensed data to support its mission?
There are two parts of our mission: to use our resources efficiently and create a world where humans and nature live in harmony. I am the only full-time remote sensing person in the whole network so I support a lot of projects worldwide. We do a lot of landuse planning, demarcate land for protected areas, plan out areas where corridors can be built for the species to move freely. We also work with agriculture departments in various countries trying to plan out sustainable agriculture and detect sustainable commodities like certified palm oil, low-impact tree harvesting etc. I am also working on reduction of human and wildlife conflict in Southern Africa. I am looking at the movement patterns of animals and then demarcate the places where they move. Additionally, we are taking many initiatives to curb poaching. In fact, Google recently gave WWF a $5-million grant to combat poaching with geospatial technology and remote sensing in African and Asian regions.
We also use remote sensing technology to combat deforestation. The data is helpful in identifying protected areas and see if the forests are being cleared in these areas. We have a fire alert system to monitor forest fires, which sounds alert to authorities in case of a fire in a protected area or in tiger habitat. In South America, for example, there are several protected areas where one can see exactly where the boundaries of protected areas are, as deforestation is taking place only outside that area, not inside. We use a lot of satellite imagery for these purposes. We use Landsat and MODIS data. We also buy a lot of high-resolution images from DigitalGlobe, and are working with Astrium as well. We use free data as much as possible, like Landsat and MODIS. We are also working on a partnership with new nanoconstellations like PlanetLabs.
We have done some aerial LiDAR collection in Congo. In fact, WWF is running a mission in Congo to collect over half a million hectares of airborne LiDAR data. After collecting these satellite images and data we analyse and interpret them to assess carbon stocks. We also have partnership with a company named SarVision, based in the Netherlands, which does some complex processing work for us. We also have partnerships with many universities for this. After processing the data we deliver it to the WWF network, ministries and governments and help them in making efficient decisions.
We are planning to open a Centre for Excellence for Conservation and Remote Sensing, to support staff in our network, to build capacity and have relationships with space agencies, universities and others.
How difficult is it for you to convince governments and ministries to use this technology?
People are skeptical initially, but when they see a satellite image or a map and understand what they can do with it, that makes a major difference. If you take a look at coral reef mapping then you will realise that the maps are much cheaper than people diving inside to survey and assess the situation. Also when people see a particular image they can better visualise the impacts. For example, I have mapped a scenario of Mekong which depicts how the Mekong forests will look like if deforestation continues till, say, 2050. One can visualise the declining levels of forests, how it will look like, how isolated fragments will become etc. This scenario actually speaks to people and kind of scares them and reveals how high is the deforestation rate.
Can you give us some examples of projects where you have been able to bring impact with remote sensing data?
The biggest project on which I am working is the Congo forest carbon mapping. For this project we are using airborne LiDAR field data and satellite imagery to create a carbon map. We are using radar data, MODIS data and DigitalGlobe imagery to prepare a comprehensive map. The project aims to give Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, a physical geospatial map of forest carbon that they can use for forest planning, REDD+ etc.
We are also working on a global monitoring system called GLOBIL (Global Observation and Biodiversity Information Portal). This can help inform governments and organisations about our work, where we invest etc.
How are you funding these projects?
It depends. For example, the Congo project is being entirely funded by the German Ministry of Environment and Nuclear Safety and the German Development Bank. They have an International Climate Initiative and they support pilot projects around the world. And then GLOBIL is internally funded by WWF, by several different offices. Basically a lot of our money is from the donors which include governments and other organisations.
Satellite imagery is also being used to estimate biomass, carbon storage and carbon emissions within REDD+.
The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation or the REDD+ initiative is a way to try to bring economic benefits to countries and communities who reduce their carbon emissions. So if they protect their forests, the initiative is a mechanism to give them money. It’s a way for them to benefit from their natural resources in an additional way. This initiative is being adopted by many countries. Forests provide ecosystem services such as food, wood, habitat and a lot of other things for reducing emissions but they often don’t provide money or development. This is the only initiative which provides compensation.
Drones could be lifesavers for hundreds of animals in danger
Remote sensing and geotechnologies play a major role in REDD+ initiative. The technology helps in identifying the carbon stocks and the forest area. So in Congo, for example, forest carbon can be mapped to know how much carbon is there per hectare. This will further help in estimating carbon sequestering. In this way countries can develop an accounting system to know how much carbon they are reducing because they have specific targets in tonnes of carbon dioxide so they need to know how much there is in the forest and how much they have burned or lost or cut down.
Are you using drones or UAVs for conservation efforts?
Drones are much cheaper than satellites. However, in places like Congo it is really hard to deploy a drone as there are a lot of restrictions on its usage. However, drones are being used in few areas for mapping carbon. Google is supporting this drone technology and they will set up a whole new communication and monitoring system which augment the drones with information from sensors deployed on certain animals like rhinos, and on the ground. This project combines surveillance, communication and other technologies to help rangers, park managers monitor parks and wildlife habitat day and night.
What are the future application areas for the use of geospatial technology in wildlife preservation and management?
Satellite technology is advancing rapidly, with increasing spatial and temporal resolution that was never available before. We are monitoring animals with the help of high resolution satellite imagery. In southern Africa we have been able to identify buffaloes and elephants in Worldview-02 imagery. With the help of tracking devices, we can see exactly where the animals go and why, and this means we can know where to target conservation efforts.
What is your message to the geospatial industry?
It is extremely important to make satellite imagery affordable and accessible to organisations like WWF. We are always eager to explore pilot projects, design new monitoring systems or test what we can really see and not, this is not possible when imagery is really expensive. We need to keep the data access open for innovative research and new tools to help stop the degradation of our planet’s natural resources, and prevent biodiversity from disappearing.