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A Phone Call With A Blast From The [Pretty Recent] Past

"Together, Bailey, we will keep changing lives."

- Asim Krdzalic

Asim Krdzalic is an incredible conservation expert, with years of experience working with animals and educating people on zoology, conservation and animal welfare and behaviour. He's also the man who hired me and gave me one of the best opportunities of my life!

Thus far in his career, he has worked across multiple zoo departments – Conservation Education (formal and informal education), Conservation & Research, Animal management, Animal training and presentations, and Marketing and design. This, alongside his passion for writing, illustrating, and designing, has helped him grow as an interpretation developer, understanding what zoo visitors from all walks of life need to learn in a fun, age and abilities-appropriate way. Asim has recently been appointed as Vice Chairman of BIAZA Interpretation Focus Group at BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums).

Asim is not only one of the kindest, most generous people that I've had the fortune to meet and work with; he is extremely knowledgeable in his field. So, upon deciding to carry out this project for D&T, he was obviously one of my first points of call. I sent him a message and he was, of course, excited and happy to get involved!

We arranged a phone call, where I asked Asim some questions relating to my project to gather some first-hand research on his personal experiences and knowledge of the use of technology within conservation, as well as possible avenues to research further, myself. I asked him if he could inform me on four things;

- How technology is being positively used within conservation / for endangered species

- How technology is helping you, personally, in your career

- How technology is causing issues within conservation / for endangered species

- Big areas where we're still facing issues within conservation

Throughout the call, between the laughter, reminiscing and personal updates, Asim gave me a huge amount of information. To summarise, he spoke to me about the following:

How technology is being positively used within conservation / for endangered species

- Marwell Zoo, in Hampshire, uses artificial intelligence and cameras to detect where animals are within their enclosures. This then allows an automated system to turn a smart-heating system on and off in particular sections of the enclosure to better run the heating. The temperature is then monitored and automatically turned on and off to maintain a chosen temperature in the areas where the animal is positioned.

- Also, at Marwell Zoo, they're the first to generate renewable energy from their own animal waste. Faeces from animals such as zebras are dried and pressed, then fed into a boiler system. The boiler then produces hot water, which directly heats enclosures such as the tropical house, as well as public amenities buildings.

- Tiny GPS systems, that are less obstructive than current huge GPS collars, are being designed to monitor location of animals in the wild. One was small enough to be tested on a snail, to see whether it impacted its movement / agility.

- The use of technology allowed an international collaboration between zoos to bring back the Scimitar Horned Oryx. The Scimitar Horned Oryx was classed as extinct in the wild, but existed in captivity in zoos across the world. The zoos worked together, remotely, to plan a reintroduction of the Oryx to the wild, as the threats that caused its near extinction have mostly disappeared. In 2016, a first, small herd were released into the wild in Chad. As of 2021, there are now over 400 in the wild, and they're doing really well!

- Cloning has been used to revive the population of the Przewalski's Horse. Due to historic, genetic bottlenecking (inbreeding due to a reduced population and variation of genetics), the Przewalski's Horse has lost health and fitness. Cloning the horses allows an introduction of more genetic diversity, as well as increasing the reproduction rate. The first Przewalski's Horse was successfully cloned and born in 2020 at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

- Wildlife corridors are strips of natural habitat that connect habitats that would otherwise be separated by manmade structures or cultivated land. These often include things like natural bridges, which are built over roads to allow animals to cross from one habitat to another, safely. One area where technology has advanced wildlife corridors is were animals are being tracked using cameras. Due to the nature of a wildlife corridor (they tend to be relatively narrow spaces), the animals have to pass through that point to get to the other side. This means that cameras can be placed alone the corridor that record when an animal is passing through, giving a really accurate set of data. Artificial intelligence is also used in order to distinguish between different individuals. This means that the cameras can detect how many times a specific animal has passed through, as well as distinguishing an individual from others of the same species.

How technology is helping you, personally, in your career

- Technology helps break a geographical barrier that would, undoubtably, be there without it. The use of technology allows Asim to interact with people all over the world; whether that be teaching people about conservation or attending conferences.

- Asim is an incredible artist and creates lots of illustrations that he uses to help teach younger people and people with special educational needs. He has recently started using digital drawing tools to create a wider range of illustrations that can be delivered electronically to people to colour in and expand on. This has given him the opportunity to create even bigger projects and reach even more people in the process.

- During his degree, Asim used a piece of software called Cowlog. Cowlog is a software that is designed to record behaviours of animals from video footage. An animal is filmed for hours and hours and the videos are then inputted into the Cowlog software. You can then tell the software when an animal is doing a particular thing in the video; for example, when the animal is eating, you tell Cowlog that the current clip shows the animal eating. The software then learns this behaviour and corresponds it to the rest of the video, detecting all of the times that the animal eats. This can, of course, be done for almost every behaviour that the animal displays during the footage, such as walking and climbing. After inputting a huge amount of video into the software, Asim was able to analyse all of the data received and make design decisions based on the research. The information provided allows decisions to be made on things such as habitat size, layout and enrichment requirements. It also gives information on unusual behaviours, which could show signs of issues with the animals.

How technology is causing issues within conservation / for endangered species

- Whales, dolphins and a variety of other marine animals use echolocation in order to navigate and locate predators and prey. Sonar from ships and other man-made vessels can interfere with basic biological functions of these animals, such as feeding and mating. The following GIF shows a blue whale trying to navigate a passage of water near Chile. The whale was attempting to feed, but couldn't navigate its way to food due to the hectic boat traffic and sonar of the ships. These issues are having a massive, negative impact on the global whale population.

- Current GPS collars, used to track animals in the wild, are too big and heavy. In some cases, they can cause major injuries or even death. This is why smaller GPS systems, such as the one mentioned earlier, are being designed.

- Electric fences have been constructed across countries such as Australia and India to try and stop certain animals migrating to places where they're not wanted. In Australia, fences have been put up to reduce the migration of kangaroos, which is having a negative impact on their population. In India, electric fences have been used to try and prevent the migration of elephants. However, due to their intelligence, some of the elephants began to work out that they could tap fences to see if they were electric and how strong the current was. If the current was low enough, they would then trample straight through the fence, crushing it to the ground. The crushed electric fences were then causing fires, which damaged the habitat. New concepts are being explored that use vibrations and sound, rather than a physical barrier, to try and prevent the elephants from moving into built up / unwanted areas.

- In Slovenia, work has taken place to try and protect the population of wild wolves. This has involved tracking them, in order to understand their mating patterns. One particular example saw a single, solitary male wolf tracked from Slovenia to Italy, where he connected with a female and established a new pack. This was obviously great to see, but the issue lies in the fact that the information was available to the public. When tracking information like this is made public, it increases the risk of things such as wildlife trafficking, and aids in illegal hunting.


- The main area where we're still facing issues within conservation is surrounding habitat fragmentation and destruction. Things like the wildlife corridors mentioned earlier are being put in place to try and reduce habitat fragmentation. However, we're currently not doing enough. When you start to fragment habitats, you end up with bottlenecking (inbreeding), which can eventually cause a species to die out. The other issue is that animals are living creatures that will make their own decisions. Therefore, it is very hard to persuade them to stay in a location that you want them to remain in. In severe cases, like areas such as North America and Russia, animals like polar bears are beginning to make their way into human-heavy areas due to habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Next Steps

All of the information that I received from Asim has been extraordinary. It has given me so much space to move forward in this project, and a lot of areas and potential routes to explore. My next step will be to research further into a few of the particular avenues that Asim introduced me to during the phone call, and that were mentioned within this post.


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