Remote sensing for conservation: uses, prospects and challenges

By Nathalie Pettorelli, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London

For many years, I believed I had a condition. Namely, a relatively short attention span, which prevented me from becoming fully engaged with series’ of talks at any given conference. Last month, however, I realised that there was a cure to this: being an organiser of the conference or symposium I attend. For the first time in my life, I was indeed able to sit and listen to talks from 9am to 5pm for two days in a row, without feeling the need to find excuses to disappear, or relying on coffee to keep me alert and engaged.

Like everybody else, I actually need my fix of “wow” moments, where you look at a slide or listen to a speaker and think “this is really cool”. What does it for me, it appears, is the combination of a good question, an “out-of-the-box” approach to tackle it, and an answer that has clear, applied implications. You can always rely on Conservation Biology to come up with loads of interesting questions whose answers have practical implications, and Remote Sensing as a science tends to provide fertile ground for developing unorthodox approaches – so having a symposium on Remote Sensing for Conservation was bound to get me my “wow” moments, and, indeed, I wasn’t disappointed.

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Nathalie Pettorelli, Woody Turner and Martin Wegmann

When Woody Turner, Martin Wegmann and I submitted our proposal for a symposium to the Zoological Society of London nearly two years ago, our vision was to pack our event with examples of how Remote Sensing can support the Conservation agenda. Our idea was to organise these examples around the classical Pressure/State/Response framework adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity, to highlight the versatility of Remote Sensing approaches in terms of scope and monitoring abilities.

We invited 24 speakers from a range of backgrounds (e.g. Conservation NGO staff, academics, Space Agency employees), and asked them to present some of their latest research and developments that clearly sit between Remote Sensing and Conservation. Such a selection attracted over 160 people from more than 15 countries over two days, as well as 30 independent poster submissions, which isn’t a bad turn-out for such an event. It was also a hit on Twitter, with the symposium hashtag (#RSConservation) being mentioned in over 100 tweets (and here is me wishing I had found a way to freely assess the exact number of tweets! 100 is likely to be a cautious underestimation).

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3D mangrove tree picture taken from above, presented by Temilola Fatoyinbo, NASA

So what were the highlights? Based on the audience’s reactions, I’d say there were some clear favourites: these included (1) Thomas Esch from the German Aerospace centre (DLR), who introduced a new RADAR-based, 12m resolution global urban footprint map developed by DLR; (2) Temilola Fatoyinbo from NASA, who got everyone hooked on monitoring mangroves thanks to her fantastic 3D mangrove tree picture (right); (3) Peter Reinartz from DLR, who simultaneously got us enthused about the Oktober Fest in Munich and automatically counting individuals of various species from above; (4) Kamran Safi from the Max Planck Institute, who got us dreaming about near real-time movement monitoring coupled with near real-time environmental information; (5) Peter Fretwell from the British Antarctic Survey, who can count penguins and whales from space (how cool is that?!); and (6) Gregoire Dubois from the European Commission – Joint Research Centre, who showed that building a system allowing us to continuously monitor all Protected Areas from space is not out of reach.

So where is this all going? Believe it or not, this was actually the first event focusing entirely on the Remote Sensing/Ecology & Conservation interface. Based on the enthusiasm at the symposium, and the general increase in research at this interface, it is pretty clear that this avenue is a growing one, and I believe events such as these are going to become more common into the future. Many, like me, will probably continue to highlight relevant activities using the #RSConservation hashtag, and all presentations will be made available online. Hopefully this event has helped to strengthen this community of people that believe Remote Sensing can bring a lot to Ecology and Conservation (and of course vice versa), providing a concrete demonstration that there is non-negligible interest in such a field of research and applications. So I’m gonna enjoy attending the next one as a member of the audience: nothing to worry about, except getting my “wow”s…

 

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