Researchers: Satellite Imagery Could Boost Wildlife Conservation

Elizabeth Borneman


An increased number of scientists, conservationists and technology scions are banding together to use their various strengths to benefit conservation efforts to track global biodiversity. An essay in a recent issue of the journal Nature proposes that by using satellite imagery, scientists can track animal species and other valuable pieces of ecological information and create a greater picture of conservationism for that particular issue. 

“Satellites offer a way to collect information in places that are relatively inaccessible to scientists, because of their remoteness or because of political instabilities,” says Nathalie Pettorelli, co-author and researcher for the Zoological Society of London. “It also allows you to collect information in repeatable, standardized, and verifiable ways, for the whole planet.”

Tracking global biodiversity is no easy feat. Using technology to promote conservation efforts can help scientists gather data in locations that are too remote, inhospitable or unsafe for them to work. Satellite tracking, while still a tremendous undertaking, can cut down on research expenses and overall costs in the long run.

Although conservationists around the world are taking advantage of advances in satellite tracking technology, there needs to be an agreed upon set of metrics by which scientists can quantify their results. This would allow for a consistent set of information that could be put together and analyzed collectively. Conservation targets have already been set by a global panel of scientists; now it’s time for those targets to be worked towards and met.

Unfortunately many ecological metrics can’t be observed using satellite imagery. Other factors like green space, forest fire risk and damage, and animal migrations can be tracked. The popularity of crowd-sourced mapping and the increased access to public satellite imagery takes away some of the challenges keeping scientists away from using satellite tracking technologies.

Satellite imagery and data from Landsat 8 (left) and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (center) show land cover (right)  on the Senegal–Guinea border in 2014. Source: Skidmore et al, 2015.
Satellite imagery and data from Landsat 8 (left) and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (center) show land cover (right)  on the Senegal–Guinea border in 2014. Source: Skidmore et al, 2015.

There’s also the matter of synchronizing tracking units to ecological measurements. Oftentimes quantifying what is seen in a satellite image is difficult, especially when different ecological bodies disagree on what’s been seen. Satellite imaging is dependent on the definition of forestland, erosion, habitat, and other terms that scientists use to track these massive amounts of global environmental data.

Collecting global data isn’t as difficult as it once was. The whole reason we can have weather reports for countries around the world and track weather events from place to place is because scientists can use satellites to track weather systems as they move around the globe. Scientists can use what they know about the spin of the earth, the effect of the jet stream, and other information to chart the weather we experience every day.

Although this technology has a long way to go as far as quantifying ecological and environmental data, the work already being done for conservation efforts using satellite tracking imagery is impressive. The future holds increased connectivity between science, conservation and technology as it brings together global conservation work.


Skidmore, Andrew K., Nathalie Pettorelli, Nicholas C. Coops, Gary N. Geller, Matthew Hansen, Richard Lucas, Caspar A. Mücher et al. “Environmental science: Agree on biodiversity metrics to track from space.” Nature 523 (2015): 403-405. Retrieved from

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.

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