The emergence of rapidly developing digital tools has had a considerable impact on the social practices of individuals, institutions and organisations involved in the conservation of nature. From tracking the movement of wild animals to detecting illegal wildlife trade online, digital technologies and applications are gaining increasing prominence in nature conservation and are reshaping discourses of conservation science and practice (Newman et al 2012, Joppa 2015). These technologies are rapidly influencing how scientists, governments and the public think, perceive and engage with nature (Verma et al 2015). Furthermore, these technologies borrow heavily from military research, and their use for law enforcement and policing feeds into the militarisation of conservation discourse (Duffy et al 2019), resulting in serious negative outcomes for local communities and undermining long term conservation goals.
Researchers working on forests, nature and wildlife conservation often welcome such technologies as they promise large amounts of data, fast processing speeds, unique visual representations and efficient decision making capability (Arts et al 2015). Arguably, digital technologies like camera traps have revolutionised conservation by making possible monitoring of rare endangered species in remote and difficult to access landscapes. For instance, India recently entered the Guinness World Records for the largest camera trap study that surveyed an area of 121,337 sq kms. However, recent research carried out by a Smart Forests researcher (Simlai 2021) on the social and political implications of these technologies has revealed that there is a downside to this story. This research argues that digital technologies are not the panacea for all conservation or forest related problems, and interventions based on these technologies must be carefully reviewed before use (Sandbrook et al 2021).
What is conservation surveillance?
The use of digital technologies in conservation law enforcement to keep a watch on someone or something for natural resource management and preservation has been described as 'conservation surveillance' (Sandbrook et al 2018). These technologies are primarily used to monitor wildlife populations or to measure forest parameters with precision and efficiency. However, research (Simlai 2021) has shown that these technologies seamlessly cross boundaries from being tools of conservation monitoring to becoming tools of coercion to achieve conservation goals. For instance, digital technologies are now being used to monitor anthropogenic activities inside forests and protected areas across the world. There is a growing call for the development of technologies specifically to monitor poaching and illegal logging and to collect evidence against offenders.
Furthermore, the use of digital technologies for law enforcement and surveillance is central to the militarisation of conservation, of which an integral component is intelligence gathering techniques based on classic military-styled counter-insurgency counter-insurgency (Duffy et al 2019). These developments have resulted in many private security enterprises and arms manufacturers investing in the innovation of complex security technologies for conservation. Scholars have argued that the perception of threat of physical enforcement through the use of surveillance is as important as actual violence (Lombard 2016). Technological interventions directed towards conservation law enforcement exercise rules that constrain and restrict people's movement within such landscapes. This phenomenon of exercising power over people can operate to create subjects that support conservation objectives decided by the state or by private organisations, overwriting more pluralistic, equitable and democratic structures needed to practise socially just conservation.
The social implications of conservation surveillance
The use of surveillance technologies for processing data on human activities raises concerns about civil liberties, freedom and infringement of privacy. Digital technologies like camera traps may not seem as intrusive or pervasive as UAVs or drones in terms of surveillance, but they mirror the same intensification of conservation enforcement and governance regimes (Sandbrook et al 2018). Camera traps are often used to inform research, law enforcement and management activities that may adversely affect people who may not have consented to be photographed. Simlai (2021) highlights these issues by demonstrating the impacts of camera traps on women in the forests of the Corbett Tiger Reserve (see video below for details). Digital technologies like drones can also lead to considerable fear and confusion, generating hostility among people that are being monitored. Drones and UAVs carry an image of warfare and destruction leading to misconceptions about their purpose in intensely contested landscapes such as protected areas and in areas with histories of violence. Many such areas in the world have long standing difficult relationships with state interventions. In these contexts, the use of such technologies for law enforcement can exacerbate already existing conflicts or creating new ones. Conflicts arising out of such use can affect partner organisations and in turn conservation in the long term.
Digital technologies in conservation are rapidly evolving and there have been advancements in many sensing tools. Camera traps are now equipped with facial recognition software and acoustic sensors can hear sounds and conversations in the forest. A myriad of other technologies like satellites, drones, long range thermal cameras and mobile applications are establishing new surveillance regimes that have the potential to change the very nature of forest space itself. Such surveillance is anchored in the techno-securitisation of society and needs to be examined in all its intricacies, alterations and interconnections.