Using tech to advance wildlife conservation

Raised in the hustle and bustle of Bogotá, Jorge Ahumada — a self-proclaimed “city kid” — rarely ventured into the Colombian countryside. But his family loved watching the nature documentaries of legendary marine explorer Jacques Cousteau.

What began as an interest in sea creatures eventually morphed into a love for lush green forests — and a career focused on protecting their biodiversity.

As a Senior Wildlife Conservation Scientist at Conservation International, Ahumada uses technology to track wildlife species around the world and ensure the data is available to develop smart policies to protect them.

Conservation News spoke to Ahumada about his transition from watching animals on TV to studying in the field – and his passion for collecting wildlife data to uncover hidden trends in nature.

Question: What sparked a passion for nature in Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries?

Answers: My dad and I used to record these documentaries on our Betamax cassette player and watch them over and over again. The deep sea world that Cousteau explored captured my imagination — not to mention the scuba gear, underwater cameras, and other cool gadgets he used.

I decided to be a marine biologist at a young age, but my father thought a more comprehensive biology degree would be more practical – and I’m glad he pushed me in that direction.

Jorge Ahumada as a student in the Sierra de la Macarena, Colombia.

Ahumada as a student in the Sierra de la Macarena, Colombia. (© Jorge Ahumada)

Q: Why is that?

A: During my third year of college, I had a life-changing opportunity: one of my professors took us on a field trip to a remote region of northern Colombia to study birds and plants. I had never been in a tropical forest before. And as we walked in, I felt like I was stepping into a cathedral. I was a city kid; I had never seen anything so alive – and it filled me with a kind of awe. The damp smell, the sounds of the frogs, the colorful birds… I was struck by the abundance of everything. From that moment on I knew I wanted to be a field biologist.

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At the end of my undergraduate studies, I traveled to the Colombian Amazon rainforest, where I lived intermittently in a camp for three years while researching spider monkeys. They are fascinating creatures but very difficult to keep up with when moving through the trees. Cranking your head to track them in the canopy can quickly lead to throbbing neck pain.

A few years later, while doing my PhD, I had an aha moment. I realized I could combine fieldwork with mathematics and theoretical ecology to understand and predict trends in animal populations. From there, I went into the field to collect wildlife data and returned to my lab to run simulations and computer models to determine why populations of certain species increased or decreased. It was like unlocking the mysteries of the forest.

Q: How did that lead you to Conservation International?

A: After spending time as a professor of population ecology in Bogota and as a postdoctoral fellow in Georgia and Wisconsin, I joined Conservation International in 2006 to help lead the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, known as TEAM.

It was a partnership formerly led by Conservation International that placed motion-detection cameras, known as “camera traps,” in tropical forests around the world. Over 12 years, TEAM has collected millions of photos of wildlife—from curious chimpanzees in the Congo to rare bush dogs in the Peruvian Amazon—that have helped inform guidelines for wildlife conservation.

However, over time I realized that there was a downside to having all this data: most of it wasn’t shared.

Badru Mugerwa, Lawrence Tumugabirwe and park ranger Job Nahabwe set up a camera trap in Uganda.

Researchers at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda set up a camera trap. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Q: What do you mean?

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A: Camera traps have made it very easy to collect vast amounts of data about wildlife, but most of these images are simply stored in people’s computers and databases. There was no central repository for researchers to compile and analyze global data – so I decided to create one.

In 2019, Conservation International, Google and a group of partners launched a platform called Wildlife Insights that allows researchers to easily view, share and explore camera trap data. Our platform currently hosts more than 50 million images. And because it uses artificial intelligence to identify the animals in the images, it can extract, organize, and analyze data in minutes. It used to take months.

Q: But aren’t animals disappearing at a rapid rate? You don’t have to see that many.

A: You are not wrong when it comes to the fact that the world’s biodiversity is in trouble. According to UN reports, more than 1 million species could face extinction if we don’t step up conservation efforts. But there have not been enough tools to adequately track wildlife populations. Wildlife Insights’ follow-up over the next few years will provide data to show us just how bad the problem really is – and what we need to do to fix it.

Q: Data and technology shape our lives, how do you see them supporting conservation?

A: You are absolutely critical. My career has focused on finding ways to increase the amount of wildlife data available for conservation – and developing the technology to analyze it and make it actionable.

We collect an enormous amount of climate data on the ground and from satellites, but the biodiversity data is much more limited. The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are two sides of the same coin; you cannot solve one without the other. Without more data on wildlife – providing indicators of overall ecosystem health – we will not know if the solutions we are implementing to stop the climate and biodiversity crisis will be effective enough in the long term.

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We need to think bigger in terms of developing technologies to diagnose nature’s health and capture the full range of organisms that contribute so we can better understand, conserve, and restore them.

A camera trap captures an image of the elusive short-eared dog in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador.

A camera trap captures an image of the elusive short-eared dog in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador. (© TEAM network)

Q: Are you hopeful for the future of wildlife around the world?

A: Yes, I’m hopeful because I’ve seen how resilient nature can be. Many ecosystems are adaptable and resilient. When we relieve habitats like forests and mangroves, animals can come back faster than we think. Take Australia: The 2019-2020 bushfire season burned millions of hectares and killed or injured 3 billion animals. At the time, it was hard to imagine that life would ever return to this region. But data from camera traps in New South Wales shows animals are indeed returning. With a little help, nature will bounce back – we just have to give it that chance.

This short documentary tells the story of a camera hunter at Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute who uses Wildlife Insights to document and conserve biodiversity in Caño Cristales, the country’s remote upper Amazon region. Watch the film here.

Kiley Price is a former Conservation International staff member and news editor. Do you want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.

Cover photo: Jorge Ahumada on the Potomac River in Virginia. (© Jorge Ahumada)

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