Nature and Biodiversity

Four ways technology can save endangered trees

Robin Bowman
Director, RJBMedia Ltd.
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Technologies offer huge scope within the sector of international wildlife trade and regulatory enforcement. For example, technology that tracks timber in trade is still relatively new, but the importance of its role is increasingly recognized, driven by growing consumer demand for the knowledge that the timber was legally harvested, and sustainably sourced and managed.

In 1975, CITES listed just 18 tree species; today that number is over 400, the majority of them from tropical countries that face tough challenges in demonstrating the timber has been harvested legally and sustainably.

Technology involved in timber tracking is designed to provide a way to model and record the flow of timber and timber products through the supply chain. At present, technologies vary greatly in sophistication. A system might be little more than paint markings on the wood that are then recorded in a spreadsheet.

Recent developments are more robust, but relatively expensive and require innovative methods to make them affordable and widely available.

These techniques include:

  1. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). This is similar to barcoding and offers a way of matching unique timber data with a database; the data is wirelessly transmitted between a tag on the timber and the RFID reader. Unlike several other less sophisticated techniques, RFID is highly resistant to forgery, but currently expensive, needs trained staff, and needs connection to a mobile phone network or the Internet.
  2. DNA sampling. Uniquely, this identification method does not require any physical tagging of the timber. Instead, genetic information can be taken from a sample of the timber at any stage in the supply chain. DNA can be used in one of two ways. First, it can be compared with genographic charts to establish the timber’s place of origin. This requires a database of all species of interest. Second, wood samples can be taken from a tree and, at various control points in the supply chain, from the timber products it has provided to check they match.
  3. Isotopic sampling. Like DNA sampling, isotopic sampling does not require products to be physically marked. Isotopes found in the soil where a tree grew are analysed and matched with samples taken from the timber product to produce a match. In order for this method to work, isotopes from relevant locations must be sampled, analysed and logged.
  4. Aerial drones. Controlled by tablet devices, drones can monitor animals and track and record poachers. Some of these drones are already deployed in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park to protect elephants. Individual animals are fitted with electronic collars that can be detected by the drone. The drones can also be used to frighten herds in order to drive them away from danger and can be adapted to detect heat signals, allowing them to track both animals and poachers at night.

For more information, read the third edition of Green Light, a monthly newsletter from the Global Agenda Council on Governance for Sustainability.

Image: A worker is seen climbing logs of timber REUTERS/Sheng Li.

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