Profile: Olivia Needham - Conservation Technology Projects Manager

Olivia Needham is a Projects Manager within the Conservation Technology unit at ZSL and works on a range of cutting-edge technological developments that are making a real difference for wildlife, including protecting rhinos in Kenya through satellite enabled camera trap systems.

Can you tell us a bit about your role at ZSL?

The conservation technology unit at ZSL is working to develop cutting-edge solutions and tools to enhance the effectiveness of field conservation efforts. My role is to oversee these projects which include Instant Wild, Instant Detect, SMART and the United for Wildlife Conservation Technology Initiative.

Most of the projects that I work on were new when I began and I have been fortunate to be a part of the wider team that has brought these projects to the point where they have become recognised globally by the conservation community as relevant and highly important initiatives.

My key area of expertise is on the use of technology for wildlife conservation.

How long have you worked for ZSL and how did you come to be in your current role?

I have worked at ZSL since 2011, prior to this I was doing my MSc at University College London on Wildlife Conservation. I started at ZSL as an intern, helping to carry out camera trap survey analysis from the Boni-Dodori region in Kenya.

Researching the role of camera traps in conservation management initiatives brought me to my next phase in my career which has focused on fully harnessing the potential of technology for wildlife conservation.

What made you want to pursue a career in your current field?

Since I was 16, when I took an environmental studies class, I knew that I wanted to work in this field. What interested me most was the interconnectedness of ecosystems and that greater species diversity safeguards sustainability for all lifeforms.

Advances in technology are helping us to solve some of conservation challenges we face today. It is a rapidly advancing field that has been exciting to be a part of for the last few years.

What is the best thing about your job?

I have worked with companies such as Google, Cambridge Consultants, Iridium, Seven Technologies and Wireless Innovations. It is amazing working with some of best innovators and engineers in the UK.

I have also worked very closely with a range of other conservation organisations which make up the SMART Partnership and United for Wildlife. SMART is one of my favourite projects to work on as it is a partnership between seven conservation organisations. It is very rewarding working on such a large scale global conservation initiative.

Have there been any particular highlights of your career so far?

Presenting to The Duke and Cambridge and Prince Charles was a major highlight of my career. I presented on the use of technology for conservation at one of the United for Wildlife inaugural meetings.

Other major highlights have been running SMART trainings in Kenya, Cameroon and South Africa. While running SMART trainings, I get the opportunity to engage with people working on the front line of protected area management. It was also pretty exciting meeting David Attenborough at this year’s Google Zeitgeist.

Cheesy question time! Do you have a favourite animal?

One of my favourite is dik-dik’s but another favourite is the Aders’ duiker as it was the focus of the first camera trap survey analysis I did.

The Aders’ duiker is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and there is little known about the current population size. There is also nothing more amazing than coming across an elephant when driving around a protected area.

Is there a particular group of animals that you consider yourself to be a specialist in or that are a favourite of yours to work with?

At the moment my work focuses on protected area management rather than specific species but a lot of the technology work we are doing has a focus on protecting rhinos in Kenya.

ZSL is a conservation charity. How does your role help ZSL as a society carry out its mission to aid conservation across the world?

One of my projects, Instant Wild, aims to empower people to take part in vital conservation work and encourage an appreciation of nature.

Instant Wild is a mobile app and website which delivers live wildlife photographs taken by camera traps set up around the world. Animals trigger the cameras as they move past and the photographs are sent straight to the app for people to view, comment on and identify the species seen in the image. This is a great way to give people a glimpse into the natural world.

Through my work with SMART, we are working towards improving tools for measuring, evaluating and improving the effectiveness of protected areas and site-based conservation activities which is a key mission for ZSL. 

You can also help Work for Wildlife by becoming a Wildlife Champion.

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