The Role of GIS in Wildlife Research and Conservation

Mark Altaweel


Monitoring and studying wildlife habitats has long been a key focus within GIS. Recent volumes, for instance, have focused on habitat analysis and how changes to the environment could be understood using remote sensing and census data for different species in order to understand how they are affected by environmental change. This includes how different regions are more likely to be affected by different environmental threats, using such methods as autocorrelation and statistical modeling.[1]

Use of GIS in Monitoring Forest Fires

In fact, assessments of environmental threats have made up the majority of research undertaken to date, such as monitoring for forest fires. In the example of forest fires, indices have been created that monitor how land cover types, distance to roads, elevation, slope, and other variables could be combined determine likelihood for an area to be affected by forest fires, where data are also derived from remote sensing sources.[2]

Data and analytical inputs for the development of a fire risk zone map in GIS. Graphic: Ajin et. al, 2016.
Data and analytical inputs for the development of a fire risk zone map in GIS. Graphic: Ajin et. al, 2016.

Conservation Biology, GIS, and Predictive Modeling

As risks facing wildlife have taken a prominent role, conservation efforts have also been prominent to mitigate risks and enhance species’ survival. One method has been to utilize GIS to assess regions and areas that are more likely to be favorable for creating specie or wildlife corridors that can create larger and more sustainable communities. The application would help model or determine where areas could be more likely to better develop migrating routes need to prevent fragmented communities for species, where community fragmentation is more likely to lead a species being under greater threat.[3]

An Automated Design Model (ADM) for a wildlife corridor shown in ArcScene, a 3D viewer for GIS data.
An Automated Design Model (ADM) for a wildlife corridor shown in ArcScene, a 3D viewer for GIS data.

Other predictive methods have been utilized to determine areas that need mitigation strategies applied to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife. For instance, predicting where fences will go or other barriers can be determined by risk factors as well as the location of highways and other roads that have relatively high traffic. This includes conditions on the roads and along the natural landscape that may prove to increase the probability of collisions between wildlife and vehicles.[4] For endangered or species that are highly threatened, assessments have been done to determine if current habitats might be sufficient to sustain a species or how much land needs to be conserved to better protect certain animals. An example study has highlighted conservation efforts are often lacking in developing sufficient area plans and networks needed for regional movement, given the needs of the threatened or endangered species.[5]

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One key concern is water-related issues, particularly revolving around water quality and habitat protection. One method assesses waterways and identifies areas where riparian buffers could be created to mitigate negative water quality effects, including sediment abatement. The study shows that satisfying agricultural needs should require separate efforts to satisfy water quality and habitat improvement goals, as each may require different water management schemes.[6]

Enhancing Public Participation in Conservation Planning with GIS

Given that conservation and mitigation are needed to combat threats to wildlife, one novel approach has been to get the public more involved. In effect, this entails using the public as a stakeholder on where they would like to see specie conservation to occur for particular animals and plants. These locations, selected by the public, are then compared with experts in wildlife. A study showed a strong, significant correlation between expert and public opinions, suggesting that conservation satisfying public desires could help better protect species while also allowing the public to enjoy seeing those species or at least having the knowledge they are conserved.[7]

What the studies and different tools developed show is there is a large need for GIS to play an important part in understanding risk to wildlife and help create methods for better conservation. Increasingly, the merger of public interest, including in water quality and wanting to see species conserved, has highlighted the need to develop complex plans that address stakeholder interests.


[1] For more on a recent volume on analytical methods for wildlife analysis, see:  Keller, Jeffrey K., Smith, Charles R (eds). (2014) Improving GIS-based wildlife-habitat analysis. New York, Springer.

[2] For more on monitoring risk for forest fires, see:  Geomatics Division, GeoVin Solutions Pvt. Ltd., Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India, R.S., A., Loghin, A.-M., Faculty of Hydrotechnical Engineering, Geodesy and Environmental Engineering, Gheorghe Asachi Technical University of Iasi, Romania, et al. (2016) The Risk Assessment Study of Potential Forest Fire in Idukki Wildlife Sanctuary using RS and GIS Techniques. International Journal of Advanced Earth Science and Engineering. [Online] 5 (1), 308–318.

[3] For more on automated design model (ADM) used for corridor creation for conservation, see:  Perkl, R.M. (2016) Geodesigning landscape linkages: Coupling GIS with wildlife corridor design in conservation planning. Landscape and Urban Planning. [Online] 156, 44–58.

[4] For an example, see the state of Idaho’s mitigation plans along its roads:

[5] For more on this study focused on conservation efforts, see:  Shanee, S., Tello-Alvarado, J.C., Vermeer, J. & Bóveda-Penalba, A.J. (2013) GIS Risk Assessment and GAP Analysis for the Andean Titi Monkey ( Callicebus oenanthe ). Primate Conservation. [Online] 26 (1), 17–23.

[6] For more on abating different stress and addressing different water quality needs, see:  Yang, W., Liu, W., Liu, Y., Corry, R.C., et al. (2014) Cost-effective targeting of riparian buffers to achieve water quality and wildlife habitat benefits. International Journal of River Basin Management. [Online] 12 (1), 43–55.

[7] For more on the study related to conservation and stakeholder aspects of conservation, see:  Cox, C., Morse, W., Anderson, C. & Marzen, L. (2014) Applying Public Participation Geographic Information Systems to Wildlife Management. Human Dimensions of Wildlife. [Online] 19 (2), 200–214.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.