Protecting an Oasis of Biodiversity 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since deployment in August 2021, the Guardian system has detected and analyzed an extensive volume of audio data.
Real-time reports of possible illegal activity
Audio recordings of animal vocalizations
Thirty alerts of illegal activity in the three sites have enabled WWF rangers to investigate incidents in real-time. In Astroni, one alert resulted in Naples police accompanying WWF rangers to seize equipment used to illegally trap animals.
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.