Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Trees that see

Good news to environmental groups and people! Although much of today’s environmental destruction of the planet (think global warming) has been due to technology, it also through technology that we can heal the planet’s wounds or prevent more damages being inflicted on our precious home.

Steve Gulick, an electrical engineer turned biologist left State University of New York (SUNY) set up a non profit organization. The organization which he calls Wildland Security has pioneered TrailGuard, a sort of system of small spy cameras installed on trees and communications illegal wildlife activities to the rangers.

In Nouable-Ndoki national park in the Republic of Congo, the 42,000 square kilometers of virgin tropical forest with rich diversity of flora and fauna is guarded by only 14 rangers. With ivory demands from many newly-rich people of China and the elites in Japan, elephant poaching is on the rise and the rangers have not even caught even a single soul. Many loggers have also begun to penetrate deeper into the forests and have killed apes and other wild animals both in defense and to deliberately get their meat which is of value in the area. More than 23,000 African elephants have been killed last year.

The sophisticated TrailGuard will have electronic devices hidden in trees and bushes. These devices can know who are the friends and enemies. For example, authorized hikers or government staff will be given transponders such that they will be identified as friends. On the other hand, hunters who bring weapons can be detected and reported to authorities. The system also includes fire detectors. Many poachers smoke their meat to prevent them from spoiling.

The beauty with this system is that all 14 rangers will not have to go around the vast area just to guard – because that is impossible anyway. The only thing that they do is quickly rush to the area where the communication tells them to.

In Congo where many people are not exposed to very high technology, many poachers may think that is magic how they are accurately located in a short period of time even if they are in the deepest parts of the forest. They may think it’s magic. Indeed, TrailGuard was thought to be that way – magic. Gulick in part got the idea from another one-time electrical engineer, the famous science fiction writer Arthur Clarke. Clarke is known for this “third law” which states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Let us hope that more TrailGuards will be installed in other biodiversity hotspots all over the world. The Amazon jungle is another area that is not just a victim of poaching and illegal logging but of man-induced fires as well. In the past, wild fires are only occurring in very dry forest lands but now, even wet tropical forests are not spared.
Millions have already been spent in conservation. I think the TrailGuard will not be very costly. Since these are small devices, the raw materials will definitely not cost much. And with worthwhile projects like these, I am sure that many big companies will surely come with ready helping hands.

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