Change is possible for the benefit of nature

Published: 3rd June 2021

FFI and NatureMetrics join forces to put environmental DNA tools into the hands of local stakeholders in the race to understand our natural world. 

FFI and NatureMetrics have signed an agreement that will see the application of environmental DNA (eDNA) technology for wildlife monitoring in Africa. The technology brings benefits both for nature and for the local communities empowered to conduct ongoing monitoring across multiple FFI Africa projects.  

The technology uses techniques similar to those used to identify the perpetrator at a crime scene by using DNA, but instead of criminals they are looking for wildlifeAnimals leave DNA in the water from shed skin, faeces, saliva and other excretions. By capturing and sequencing those genetic traces we can identify the biodiversity present in an area. NatureMetrics have developed a simple eDNA sampling kit that can be used by conservation scientists, local rangers, community members or citizen scientists, allowing people to engage with their local biodiversity whether they are an expert or not. These forward-thinking technologies are giving people a stake in the protection of nature, something that FFI believes is a key recipe for successful conservation 

Malavika Narayana and Constant Ndjassi from the FFI Liberia team takes a training sample in the Mesurado River that crosses the capital Monrovia. An important urban mangrove and wetland habitat that provides valuable ecosystem services to the capital city.  

Philip Tem Dia of FFI Liberia, who recently conducted a NatureMetrics eDNA survey in pangolin habitats said, “It was an exciting moment for me when we collected samples from the Lawa River with Centre Forestière de N’Zerekore (CFZ) rangers in Guinea and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) rangers in Liberia. I was really amazed that the rangers were so quick to understand the concept during the training and were able to collect samples from the field so easily. eDNA kits from NatureMetrics are much easier to use than other biodiversity survey methods. The rangers were also so excited and they were doing this for the first time. It was a great joy to use this technique to find elusive species such the endangered white-bellied pangolin. 

Philip Tem-Dia and Matthew Varney fro the FFI Liberia team test out the NatureMetrics eDNA kits for the first time during a training in Monrovia. 

The progress so far 

With the same effort usually used to search for one species, FFI and NatureMetrics were able to detect more than 100 vertebrate taxa from their eDNA samples. This exciting new pilot project marked the first in a number of collaborations that FFI and NatureMetrics now plan to carry out under a collaboration agreement signed today. In just 27 water samples collected by FFI in Liberia, NatureMetrics were able to identify the presence of the endangered white bellied Pangolin and Baer’s wood mouse, a highly cryptic species not recorded by the project team before.

The eDNA data also detected two species of vulnerable freshwater fish, the endemic Ziama torrent frog, as well as two species of near threatened otters not recorded by conventional camera trap surveys. Requiring less field time, and with sample collection easily conducted by non-experts, this technology vastly expands the opportunity to gather wildlife data providing vital insights for the management of important species. During the COVID pandemic, these simple tools enable rangers and community members to continue monitoring even in the absence of international experts, while simultaneously upskilling and empowering park rangers and local managers to play a more central role in biodiversity assessment. 

In this project, which spanned Liberia and Guinea, FFI originally aimed to survey for key pangolin species present in the landscapeInstead, for the same effort in the field, they have been able to detect 114 species of mammals, birds and amphibians. Katie Critchlow, CEO of NatureMetrics said: “These are the kind of scalability and efficiency gains we need in the race to understand and protect our natural world before it’s too late. We’re in a mass extinction crisis and we don’t even yet know what lives where, let alone what role species play in our planet’s life supporting systems”.  

Having managed conservation projects across the world for decades FFI knows that measuring the progress of projects and the impacts on nature can be challenging and eDNA can provide a solution to some of those challenges. 

The FFI-NatureMetrics collaboration will now broaden out to include other project sites across Africa where it is hoped the technology can uncover the conservation impact of projects in terrestrial, coastal and marine environments 

In addition, the two organisations have formed a new working group to explore how DNA-based methods can be used to support the development of new standards and metrics for measuring progress towards Biodiversity Net Gain targets of large businesses.  

The next projects that FFI and NatureMetrics will work on will include developing DNA based biodiversity monitoring plans for National Parks in Mozambique and beyond. Together they hope to blaze a trail for other NGOs, businesses and governments to follow suit in using 21st century tech to scale up the monitoring of our natural world. Because that which is measured improves. 

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