Instant Wild: Saving Endangered Species Via Smartphone

Wildlife conservation is a race against the clock to save endangered species. Knowing when and where rare species are still present is the first step toward quickly creating conservation actions to help. With Instant Wild, an interactive website and iPhone app, the Zoological Society of London has put this essential task into the hands of the public. Images of wildlife captured in remote locations around the planet are sent directly to the site for identification by users, saving huge amounts of time and bringing ordinary citizens a glimpse of the wilderness.

Instant wild citizen science


Globally, 21% of known mammals are threatened with extinction1—and that's only the ones we know about. Shockingly, over 1/3 of all amphibians are threatened with extinction. The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is working to identify where urgent conservation actions are necessary and both to deduce and to understand the threats facing wildlife. However, many animals are found in remote and inhospitable places such as mountainous terrain or the depths of the rainforest. Traditionally, conservationists have used camera traps to capture photographs of rare and endangered wildlife where it is often hard to track them down. The cameras are triggered by the animals' movement or body heat. It's incredibly important to know when a species on the verge of extinction can still be found in a particular area, so action can be taken instantly. Overcoming the challenge of, first, finding them and, second, photographing and identifying them is the key to success if we are to initiate conservation actions and conserve these species.


Instant wild citizen science


With Instant Wild, citizens take on wildlife conservation

Instant Wild is a unique citizen science project aimed at instantly delivering photographs taken by remote wildlife camera traps placed at ZSL conservation projects to an interactive website and iPhone application for identification and discussion by members of the public. Members of the general public are able to identify the species captured by the camera in each photograph, discuss the photograph and view live opinions from other users as to what the species may be.

Ultimately, Instant Wild aims to save conservationists thousands of hours by empowering the general public to help sort the live images by species group, enabling scientists to analyze the data much faster and make informed conservation actions instantly - helping to conserve wildlife. Key benefits to conservation efforts include:

a) The ability to instantly know if a rare and threatened species has been spotted

b) The ability to identify where conservation actions are necessary, right now

c) The promotion of the conservation of species spotted by the cameras


citizen science instant wild


Observing the wilderness, thanks to mobile phone technology

Traditionally, conservationists use camera traps to capture photographs of wildlife by placing cameras in areas where they believe wildlife may be spotted. The cameras are secured to trees and, when possible, placed along known animal tracks or watering holes to maximise the probability of capturing an animal on film. This helps us gain more insight into what species are in the area.

We are distributing Instant Wild cameras to ZSL field projects and ZSL field conservationists for deployment. We aim to have Instant Wild cameras operating at each of our field sites in the near future, including sites in Thailand, Indonesia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Saudi Arabia and many more.


Instant wild citizen science


The cameras used consist of electronic components encased in waterproof ruggedized containers for deployment in the field. The camera is triggered by a PIR (Passive Infra Red) sensor able to detect changes in heat sources, such as a small mammal. Photographs and environmental conditions such as moon phase and temperature are captured and saved to a local SD (Secure Digital) card for removal and analysis at a later date. Due to advances in camera trapping technology, the quality, reliability and performance demanded by users has fuelled competition between manufacturers to develop new innovative features such as the wireless transmission of photographs via GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications).

Currently the location of each camera is dependent on the available GSM (mobile phone) signal; a number of conservation projects have requested the use of Instant Wild technology to help identify species instantly, yet there is no suitable coverage available. We are, however, quickly making advances in the use of satellite connectivity in order to place Instant Wild cameras in remote and isolated regions of the world like Antarctica, Mongolia, and in the depths of forests in Africa. Live photographs of wildlife from some of the world’s most inhospitable wilderness areas could help scientists possibly discover species once thought to be extinct or even new to science.


Instant wild citizen science


Citizen “filters” of wildlife photos

To identify the animal in the photo, a gallery of photographs is displayed. Each camera released on the Instant Wild website will display a minimum of 10 species that we believe may be spotted to aid in the identification of common species. If a species is spotted that cannot be found in the predefined list, a user is able to note this and is advised to place a comment so other visitors are able to discuss and distinguish what the species may be. However, users don't always identify the species in the photograph correctly, as there may be a difference of opinion. Therefore, we use an algorithm to take the highest scoring votes for a particular species and filter out the lowest scoring. For example, if a leopard is thought to have been spotted by 100 people, whereas 45 say it's a lion, we will filter that photo as a leopard and pass this to an expert for final identification. By using citizens as the filter, we are only passing to the experts the photos that they need to see, and removing the photos that may have been blank, incorrectly identified, or not necessary for a specialist to view. ZSL staff and scientists are also able to view the stats on what species were identified and by how many people, easily gaining insight into how accurate identification by users is. If a discrepancy arises (equal votes on a photograph), ZSL scientists can review those images in more depth.


Instant wild citizen science


Instant Wild is meant to engage new audiences in conservation through interactive citizen science and raise interest in and knowledge of species across the globe. Over 85,000 people have downloaded the Instant Wild app to date. You can join them and begin helping scientists, thanks to this window onto the wild.


Instant wild citizen science


About the author: 

Alasdair Davies is a Technical Advisor for the "EDGE of Existence" programme, the only global conservation initiative to focus specifically on threatened species that represent a significant amount of unique evolutionary history. His background in Multimedia and Internet Technology enabled him to create the EDGE website, supported by Carly Waterman and volunteers. He now works as part of the EDGE website team and is also Programme Director of The Great Primate Handshake, an innovative primate conservation awareness tour of Africa.


Find out more:

Instant Wild app - Free download from iTunes

Instant Wild on Twitter (@InstantWild) - Updates on sightings, status of cameras, and confirmed species identifications.

Conservation work at The Zoologicial Society of London