Wiring the wild: Animal exploitation or creation care?

While on a recent trip to India’s Periyar Tiger Reserve, my wife and I were told by our guides that approximately 48 tigers lived in or near the preserve, although sightings are quite rare. How then did they arrive at the number 48? Trail cameras snap motion-activated photos of the cats during their nighttime prowls.

We’re getting used to being perpetually on-camera in the human realm. Now we’re extending the 24/7 monitoring into the animal realm. Electronic tracking devices, trail cameras, the use of drones for animal counts – you name the technology, biologists and wildlife managers are putting it to use.

The scientific payoff is considerable. Data on population sizes, nesting habits, eating patterns, mating rituals and movement maps can be gathered with little human labour involved. A friend of mine who works with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is heading up a trail cam project called Snapshot Wisconsin that will be monitored almost entirely by volunteers. Once placed, the cameras will be tended by ordinary citizens who agree to access regularly the cameras’ flash drives and upload the photos to the DNR’s website. The project provides snapshots of deer, mountain lions, wolves and other wildlife.

More data
It’s not all in the service of science. Some of it is nature voyeurism, as nest cams and lair cams give constant access to aeries and dens. A wildlife lover in Australia can check in daily on the goings and comings of a wolf pack in Yellowstone. Mating osprey in remote nests little suspect that their canoodling is being broadcast via the Internet around the world. What of this perpetual eye on the tiger? Might it be a form of creation care?

There’s a lot of upside to the electronic eyes and ears we’ve directed toward the biotic world.

A recent article in The Atlantic celebrated these advances even as it wondered if it meant the end of zoos. If we have 24/7/365 access to animals in the wild, will anyone want to visit a zoo? It’s an odd argument, as if zoos have some right to exist that other means of scientific investigation need to respect. I, for one, will not lament the demise of zoos as public spectacle, although they may continue to play a very limited role in conservation and restoration of threatened species.

There’s a lot of upside to the electronic eyes and ears we’ve directed toward the biotic world. The gush of data will expand exponentially our knowledge of the way creation works. It is, I think, an appropriate extension of the divine mandate to name the animals, for true naming involves knowing intimately.

To what end?
But we should be aware of a dark side to this data rush. Greater knowledge gives rise to greater opportunities for misuse and exploitation. At the end of the Flood story, even as God promises not to send another flood, he notes that the “inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Unscrupulous technology use merely amplifies the capacity for harm. 

So the Michigan legislature, for instance, is considering legislation to ban the use of drones in hunting, fearing it gives hunters an unsporting advantage (although it should be noted that they are also considering a ban on animal rights groups’ monitoring of hunters via drones). Of even greater concern is poaching, especially of endangered species like the Bengal tigers of Periyar, whose poached body parts claim astronomical prices on traditional medicine markets. Trail cams and GPS tracking devices provide real-time information on location and movement, making the life of poachers infinitely easier and the lives of God’s rare creatures even more precarious.

I hope to get back to Periyar again someday. Here’s praying that the more precise data from our wiring of nature means there will be more, rather than fewer, of these majestic creatures on the prowl. 


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