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Protecting an Oasis of Biodiversity in Italy

Acoustics technology & AI are battling environmental threats in three "Oasis" sites in Italy

Home to the highest numbers and densities of animal and plant species within the European Union plus very high rates of endemism, Italy is as rich in biodiversity as it is in history, art, and culture. 

Despite this richness, the Mediterranean nation hasn't escaped a major threat affecting biodiversity on a global scale: human activity. Ranging from sprawling urbanization that consumes, fragments, and degrades habitats to activities like illegal logging and poaching, Italy's highly varied ecosystems are at risk. 

Many endemic species – those only found in Italy – face an uncertain future, including mammals like the vulnerable Italian wolf and critically endangered Marsican brown bear. At the same time, an alarming 29.7% of the nation's vascular flora is risk of extinction.

Three Oases

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Consistently at the vanguard of nature conservation, WWF has designated 100 protected "Oasis" sites in Italy. Thanks to these efforts, it's been possible to identify three particularly vulnerable sites: Orbetello Lagoon and Burano Lake in Grosseto are of primary importance for almost 300 species of birds. And the Crater of Astroni in Naples is home to three lakes, a well-preserved Mediterranean forest, 130 species of birds, and rich populations of amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

The main threats to these three biodiversity hotspots are poaching, illegal logging, and the unauthorized access of people to do things like race motocross bikes or set off fireworks – activities that can decimate habitats and cause forest fires. For WWF rangers, monitoring these areas on foot or even by car is not just time-consuming and labor-intensive, it also makes a real-time response to incidents difficult.

However, the activities that constitute environmental threats make distinctive sounds when they happen – sounds like a chainsaw starting, a gunshot, or a motorbike engine. If they're picked up by a monitoring device, these sounds can be transmitted across a network and identified by AI analytics. That's how the Nature Guardian system works – a solar-powered device comprising a microphone and antennas is installed high up in trees where it can't be seen. Each Guardian can pick up and transmit environmental sounds over 3 km2 for AI to analyze.

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A WWF Ranger receives an alert that a chainsaw has been detected

When the AI recognizes the sound of a threat, the platform sends an alert to rangers' phones so they can investigate a potential incident in real time.

The WWF rangers' job mainly involves anti-poaching, which means covering large areas by foot and by car. So being able to take advantage of this technology provides great support to fight illegal activities. Piernazario Antelmi
Ranger Coordinator, WWF Italy

Listening to the Sounds of Nature

The three sites are protected with 10 networked Guardian devices and 45 offline edge Audiomoth devices. Alongside the Guardians, the Audiomoths help fulfill the second function of the monitoring system: studying animal species based on their calls. Listening to animal vocalizations can identify different species, monitor their distribution and populations, and identify factors that disturb them, including the effects of climate change. 

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 Rainforest Connection's Lawrence Whittaker installs a Guardian in an oak tree

Studying "umbrella species" – typically animals mid-food chain whose well-being indicates the health of the overall ecosystem – and endangered species can help with adaptive management to improve conservation outcomes. 

To make that happen, partnerships are at the heart of the project. Under the remit of WWF Italy's 10-year ReNature Italy initiative, the OASIS project brings together the acoustics technologies and conservation knowledge of NGO Rainforest Connection, local WWF rangers, Huawei's cloud and ModelArts AI technology, and the University of Pavia, which will study the ecosystem. 

The soundscape is the direct expression of the vitality, richness and biodiversity of many natural environments; it represents an essential component of many ecosystems in which animals have evolved complex systems of communication, echolocation, and perception of the environment thanks to sound. Gianni Pavan
Professor of Bioacoustics, University of Pavia

Since deployment in August 2021, the Guardian system has detected and analyzed an extensive volume of audio data. 

  • 2,000

    Real-time reports of possible illegal activity

  • 870,000

    Audio recordings of animal vocalizations

  • 49

    species of birds and mammals identified

The Guardian devices installed in the three Oases have so far collected 870,000 recordings, validated the automated recognition of 49 species of birds and mammals, sent over 2,000 real-time alerts on sounds potentially associated with illegal activities, and prompted over 30 field checks. Moreover, in December 2021, the Nature Guardian system in Astroni Crater led to the identification and destruction of an electroacoustic device designed to help bird poachers.

This start has given us confidence that the oasis of nature found in Italy can remain one of the planet's richest and healthiest biodiversity hotspots. 

The use of innovative technologies, which we are experimenting for the first time in Italy through collaboration with Huawei and Rainforest Connection, has finally allowed us to better protect Italian nature and to deepen our knowledge of its biodiversity.Marco Galaverni
Program Director, Oases, WWF Italy

This project aims to provide the biggest collaboration tool and database for studying biodiversity – it will enable deep learning models in support of research activities related to nature. Fabio Romano
Head of Industry Ecosystem, Huawei