Virtual Fences In Conservation
Fences are often used in conservation initiatives to prevent the spread of disease, aid species restoration, and help manage protected areas. However, traditional physical fences are often less than optimal due to the high costs of implementing and maintaining them, their potential to negatively impact movements of animal species, and the effect they have of separating people from nature. This article, published in Animal Conservation, reviews the use of an alternative type of fence for conservation initiatives: virtual fences that rely on techniques other than physical barriers to direct animal behavior.
The authors first describe various types of virtual fencing systems that have been used with some success but also present certain drawbacks:
- Sensory deterrents, such as underwater acoustic devices or strobe lights, are easy to implement but may be short-lived, particularly if animals acclimatize to them.
- Biological fences, such certain types of plants, may deter animals. For example, when placed around crops, chili plants and beehives stop elephants from raiding the crops.
- Animal-mounted collars set off on-the-ground alarms or shock animals, which raises serious animal welfare concerns.
The virtual fencing system that seems to offer the most promise is real-time virtual fencing (RTVF). This system uses GPS tracking devices, which are attached to animals’ collars, to alert conservation personnel to animal movements so that they can remove animals from restricted areas. In comparison to traditional fences, RTVF systems do not require extensive construction, maintenance, and removal. Additionally, their boundaries can be quickly and easily modified to address specific conservation concerns, and they provide tracking information that can be used to identify and prioritize conservation actions. Finally, from a social-psychological perspective, they can reconnect people with nature by removing physical barriers while also providing data that could help mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.
While virtual fences offer a promising alternative to physical barriers, the authors identify several drawbacks of virtual fences and RTVF systems in particular. They note that a key element of virtual fences is “training individual animals to understand and obey boundaries without repeated intervention.” Therefore, they speculate that the system would only work on certain species, in particular “slowly reproducing, long-lived and group-living species with overlapping generations.” Secondly, RTVF systems present technological limitations. For instance, they require a large battery and entail high costs for data acquisition. Additionally, since RTVF systems provide only warning messages, they would require increased on-the-ground management action. Finally, from a social-psychological perspective, RTVF implementation as a replacement for traditional fences would need to be accompanied by extensive public outreach to local communities.
In conclusion, the authors state that despite limitations of virtual fences, their use will likely increase as a viable, forward-thinking strategy for wildlife management and restoration. They also urge conservation practitioners to “carefully consider the costs and benefits of any fencing approach when attempting to address management concerns, taking into account species- and site-specific factors.”