Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

Using drones for environmental research and spying

Think of them as robots with wings.  When it comes to the environment, drones are all the rage right now. 

Ready to launch... forest monitoring in Nepal

Ready to launch... forest monitoring in Nepal

For instance, Brazil is experimenting with drones as a way to monitor forests and land-use in the Amazon, especially for keeping a close eye on landowners who try to clear forests illegally.

And Kenya plans to deploy drones to spy on poachers within 52 of its national parks, after a wildly successful pilot program found drones reduced poaching by up to 96%.

ALERT member Lian Pin Koh is a leader in developing cost-effective drones for conservation research.  Here he tells us a bit more about his work:

Conservation is impossible without good field data.  Traditionally, conservation scientists have relied on ground-based surveys, manned aircraft, and satellite images to acquire the data they need.  But all these approaches have disadvantages—they are often expensive, difficult, or limited in the area they can cover.

For this reason Serge Wich and I founded the ConservationDrones project in 2012.

Conservation drones are low-cost, autonomous, and operator-friendly aerial vehicles.  They can fly pre-programmed missions of up to 40 kilometers, and acquire high-quality videos and photos.

The drone’s ’brain’ is an autopilot system developed by an online community of drone builders.  Many drones are equipped with a still-photograph camera with built-in GPS, so that all photographs are geo-tagged.

The flight path for each mission is created by simply clicking waypoints on a Google satellite map.  The drone is hand-launched, and then goes about its mission and returns and lands automatically.

A drone's-eye view: no place to hide for illegal loggers

A drone's-eye view: no place to hide for illegal loggers

Remarkably, our drones cost just a few thousand dollars each.  We are using them to survey forests, to track rhinos, orangutans, and elephants, and to detect poachers and illegal logging and forest burning. 

Because they are so cheap, easy to use, and versatile, our drones are increasingly being used by NGOs and governments around the world.  We think they can make a big contribution to nature conservation—the sky’s the limit!