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Minecraft: We Are the Rangers

Minecraft on the African savannah

Alasdair Davies

Alasdair Davies

Alastair Davies is a tech consultant with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). He’s been working for several years on various initiatives to educate the public and help raise awareness of endangered species, poaching, and conservation efforts around the globe. One of those projects is Instant Wild, a popular crowdsourcing app used to identify animals captured by camera traps in remote locations around the globe. He recently sent me this update. 

We wanted to reach out to new young audiences and get them excited about camera trapping and monitoring wildlife. Over 60% of the Instant Wild audience are over 30, so it was a space we wanted to fill—even more so as young people appreciating wildlife and understanding environmental change and sustainability is incredibly important.

Minecraft Ranger

Minecraft Ranger

So… we used Minecraft! (40 million players globally)

116 volunteer Minecraft players spent the last 12 months recreating an African wildlife conservancy map and added wildlife (elephants, rhinos, etc.) and actual camera traps to the game. Here’s someone playing the map and finding a camera trap, and here are people having a first play, rescuing pangolins from poachers. Read more…

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The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

The Best and Brightest Compete to Stop Illegal Wildlife Traffic

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Also known as the Scaly Anteater, it actually walks on its hind feet. It uses its front feet for balance. It is a very rare sight to see since it is primarily nocturnal and is hunted for its scales (for traditional Chinese medicine). Photo by David Brossard. CC-by-sa/2.0/

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Its scales are prized in traditional Chinese medicine.
Photo by David Brossard. Flickr: CC-by-sa/2.0

Wildlife trafficking is pushing many animals closer to extinction, threatening the livelihoods of people who rely on ecotourism, and is responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 rangers in the last decade. It’s not just elephants, rhinos, and tigers: worldwide consumer demand has pushed market prices for all kinds of animals and animal parts to record levels for exotic pets, trophies, luxury items and souvenirs, religious and cultural items, food, and traditional medicines.

This year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in conjunction with the U.S. Global Development Lab, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC created an incentive for science and tech communities to develop new and innovative ways to combat wildlife trafficking. The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge is hoping to find new and innovative solutions for four main issues:

  • Understanding and shutting down trafficking routes
  • Improving forensic tools and data gathering to build strong criminal cases
  • Reducing consumer demand for illegal wildlife products
  • Combatting corruption along the illegal wildlife supply chain

By the end of the year, the Challenge will award prize packages of $10,000 plus technical assistance, networking support, and recognition to further the proposed solutions. Prize winners will also have the chance to win a Grand Prize of $500,000. Read more…

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Birding goes hi-tech with eBird

Birders channel Audubon, with keystrokes instead of brushstrokes

Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon

John James Audubon: Passenger Pigeons

Forget the stereotype of introverted birders with binoculars perpetually around their necks and floppy hats crowning their heads. Instead, think of serious naturalists and ornithologists in the spirit of John James Audubon in the 21st century. Today amateur and professional birders around the world are using to record their findings and observations in a database that is being used by researchers and conservation organizations to better understand biodiversity and support the global biodiversity information community.

Birds are far more than a beautiful addition to our natural world. They are critical links to the ecosystem as agents of dispersal, biological controls, and perhaps most importantly, bio-indicators.

eBird was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, “on behalf of the birding community to provide a rich and rapidly growing database of bird sightings worldwide.”  In the eBird mobile app, they note: “Many birders use eBird to keep track of their life lists, share their sightings with other birders, and keep their records safely backed-up. Scientists use these observations to explore patterns of bird distribution and abundance, and to better conserve birds and biodiversity.” Read more…

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“Save the Whales”


Whalers and their catch, ca. 1913.

Back in the 1970s, a lot of cars sported “Save the Whales” bumper stickers. More than 2 million whales were caught by commercial whalers in the 20th century, and by the middle of the century, many populations were severely depleted. The “Save the Whales” campaign brought millions of people together, resulting in a near-worldwide ban on commercial whaling in 1986. Today, many fewer whales are being taken, but there are still many threats to their survival, including commercial marine traffic.

Big ships run into whales. Inadvertently, of course, but because today’s shipping lanes overlap with whale feeding and migration areas, whales (many of them endangered species) are at great risk of being injured or killed. Obviously, the best way to save the whales is to avoid running into them—and commercial ships now have some free tools that make that possible.

There’s an app for that.

For the past two years, mariners along the U.S. East Coast have been able to download a free iPad and iPhone app that warns them when they enter areas with a high risk of collision with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Whale Alert  provides a central source for information about how to navigate around right whales in specific areas, along with the latest data about their whereabouts, all overlaid on NOAA digital charts. Read more…

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One fish, two fish, right fish, wrong fish

A WWF International Smart Gear Competition to reduce bycatch

Pollock Catch

Alaskan pollock caught by trawler.
by David Csepp, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC/Auke Bay Lab. – NOAA Photo Library: fish0192.

By some estimates, fishing bycatch—which includes unwanted dolphins, turtles, whales, and birds—snared by gillnets, longlines, and trawlers makes up 40% of the catch today.

The 2014 International Smart Gear Competition seeks innovative, environmentally friendly ways to reduce the amount of fisheries bycatch. The recurring contest is sponsored by the WWF, and has resulted in some really clever solutions (such as LED-equipped nets tuned to various wavelengths that repel specific species) that greatly reduce bycatch, conserving populations of marine mammals, turtles, fish, and other sea creatures.

Open to all, over the last few years the competition has attracted entries from all kinds of people who care about fishing— from gear technologists and fishermen to engineers and chemists. The judges panel includes fisheries experts, gear technologists, fishermen, scientists, researchers, and conservationists.

Deadline for entries for 2014 is August 31, but don’t let that stop you from coming up with new ideas. The contest is a recurring event—and this year’s prizes total $65,000.

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Nerds Without Borders Hit the Beach

Newly hatched sea turtles

Newly hatched sea turtles make their way to the ocean.

An item from O’Reilly’s IoT+ Newsletter that caught my eye:

Two million human visitors share the Cape Hatteras National Seashore with endangered turtles. To protect the turtle nests and hatchlings during the hatching period the beaches must be closed—but because it’s difficult to gauge when exactly the baby turtles will hatch, the beach is closed for 6 weeks from the discovery of the nest.

Nerds Without Borders has created nest monitor devices with a microcontroller, accelerometer, thermometer, and communications system inside a ping-pong ball (which, conveniently, looks a lot like a turtle egg).

These sensors more accurately determine when hatching will take place—allowing the beaches to be closed for much shorter periods and giving researchers a heads up when hatching will happen. Duane Benson explains.

(And if you’re wondering where the baby turtles go after they hatch and head out to sea…)

About Nerds Without Borders

Nerds Without Borders is a network of thoughtful people working collaboratively to solve many of the world’s most pressing problems. They are looking for all sorts of people to help: Engineers, Scientists, Writers, Artists, Dreamers, Activists, Organizers, Fundraisers, Financiers, among others. You define the type of work you want to do, and how much time you can commit to a project. Learn more at

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Instant Wild: Smart People, Awesome Technology

ZSL’s Alasdair Davies tells us how it’s done.

Instant Wild Images

Images captured by Instant Wild cameras in Africa are instantly transmitted to the Web for identification by the public.

Alasdair Davies

Alasdair Davies

Alasdair Davies is a Technical Advisor for the Zoological Society of London’s Conservation Technology program and a web developer for the EDGE of Existence program. His current focus is the delivery of ZSL’s Instant Wild project, the advancement of camera trapping technology, and the future development of the EDGE website. Alasdair is also a founder and director of the primate conservation organization The Great Primate Handshake. We conducted this interview via email. 

When and where was the idea for Instant Wild hatched?
ZSL’s Instant Wild programme started life on a staircase within Conservation Programmes at Regent’s Park, London—better known as the location of ZSL London Zoo. It was one of those “Have you seen the new GSM-enabled camera traps? Aren’t they great…” conversations whilst holding the morning’s first mug of coffee and checking in on the day’s schedule.

Is there a story behind it?
Instant Wild logo
Although the conversation on the staircase was brief, our Director of Conservation Programmes, Jonathan Baillie, was luckily the other person on the stairs that morning. Later that afternoon, he called me into his office. It was evident that he had been pondering the morning’s conversation and I could sense that there was an exciting idea on the table. Within in an hour, the name Instant Wild was decided upon and the concept of sending the very photos the cameras take to the general public for instant analysis was founded. We’d have hundreds of thousands of eyes scanning thousands of photos from across the globe every single day. It could answer so many questions, and there wasn’t a second to lose. Read more…