Forensics used to reverse the decline of biodiversity in Europe

Staffordshire University is contributing forensic intelligence to an ambitious project which aims to protect endangered species like wolf, bear, lynx, and sturgeon in remote areas of Europe.

Funded by Horizon Europe, NATURE FIRST brings together 12 global partners to improve biodiversity and protect the habitats of many species which are being threatened by human activity.

Over the next three years, the project will develop predictive, proactive and preventative capabilities for nature conservation and law enforcement by combining forensic intelligence and remote sensing technologies into one system.

This new approach will draw on real-time data from satellites, drones, cameras and other sources to monitor protected locations affected by human activity.

Spanning Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia and Spain, the project will focus on biogeographical regions including the Carpathians, the Danube Delta, the Stara Planina mountains, the Os Ancares and O Courel.

Claire Gwinnett, Professor of Forensic and Environmental Science, explained: “The overall aim is to halt and reverse the decline of biodiversity in Europe. We want to improve natural habitats where certain species are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem. To achieve this, we need a better understanding of why and where biodiversity is declining and what the key triggers are.

“As most of the threats and pressures on biodiversity are man-induced, this project will combine ecology and forensic science. This novel approach will use remote sensing technologies, machine learning and wildlife forensic methods to detect and recognise traces of human activities that negatively affect the environment.”

Biodiversity is under severe pressure due to a myriad of problems, including habitat fragmentation, overexploitation, hunting, climate change, pollution and invasive species.

The exploitation of natural resources also brings with it illegal activities such as poaching of species of flora and fauna that have a high value on the black market, trafficking and trading of rare and exotic animals and plants and setting fire to forestry and natural areas to force land-use designation changes to agriculture or commercial uses.

NATURE FIRST’s continuous, model-driven form of ecosystem monitoring will help to find cause-effect relationships and better understand changes in the environment. The models, also called Digital Twins, will help to translate environmental data into facts and actionable information for site managers and policy makers.

Professor Gwinnett said: “The regions we are looking at cover vast land masses which can’t easily be monitored manually on the ground. The Digital Twins system will make use of digital technologies to detect wildlife crime and other threats to facilitate rangers or law enforcement officers so that they respond more effectively.

“We will also be looking at how people who use the area legitimately can report through the Digital Twins system to help trigger a response to any changes in the environment or illegal activity.”

Professor Gwinnett added: “The aim of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 is to ensure that ecosystems are healthy, resilient to climate change and rich in biodiversity so that they can keep delivering the range of services essential to the prosperity and well-being of all of us. We are excited to be taking positive steps to help achieve this by working with such a fantastic group of global partners.”

The NATURE FIRST consortium members are 3EDATA INGENIERIA AMBIENTAL SLBulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Danube Delta National Institute for Research and DevelopmentDotSpaceSemantic Web Company (SWC)Sensing Clues (coordinator), Staffordshire UniversitySustainable Scale-up FoundationWageningen University & ResearchWildlife Forensic Academy, and WWF.