Playing games to save endangered wildlife

Monday June 01 2020

Dr. Rafael Mares - data scientist and wildlife biologist for Internet of Elephants, wades through blackwaters to get to Goualougo camp in Nouabalé Ndoki National Park: PHOTO | COURTESY | GAUTAM SHAH


There’s no time to lose to save our wildlife. So Gautam Shah, National Geographic explorer and founder of Internet of Elephants, created a new way of conservation — playing games to save wildlife.

The Internet of Elephants says they use the latest technology to build innovative digital experiences that create closer relationships between people and wildlife.

The games can be downloaded for free: Wildeverse, much like Pokemon Go, could see you running through the streets of Nairobi or New York trying to find a gorilla; on Safari Central you can take a photograph with your favourite wild animal, like a pangolin, curled up in bed with you; or participate in Run Wild, a fitness campaign with Adidas to run with Uuliin the snow leopard in the mountains of Mongolia.

But it's not just about playing games. Real data is collected from the ground to create authentic stories. The organisation also has partnerships with conservation organisations.

“Today,” Shah says “two billion people spend an average of six hours a week playing games on their mobile phones. Imagine the impact if we can get even one per cent of two billion, which is 20 million, addicted to wildlife.

“Markets will adjust their offerings to appeal to the value systems of their customers. Governments will see that the environment is a priority for their citizens. And donors and investors will bring more money into the sector. It's going to take a long time to get there, but we have to start thinking this way or else things will just remain the same as they are now.”


Dr. Rafael Mares - data scientist and wildlife biologist for Internet of Elephants: PHOTO | COURTESY | GAUTAM SHAH


Keen-eyed with an easy demeanour, Shah, in his forties, was born and raised in Chicago, US. His first encounter with wildlife was in his backyard.

After working for an IT company for 20 years, he left to set up his own to create interactive wildlife games.

Earth is facing its sixth mass extinction. The last one happened 66 million years ago when a comet crashed into Earth which wiped out the dinosaurs.

Now in the anthropocene (age of humans) from 200,000 years ago, the Earth is losing species a hundred times faster than it would without our impact. Since 1970 the human population has more than doubled while that of wildlife has more than halved.

Wildlife on land, air and in the water is facing a dim future despite years of campaigns. This century alone, 17 species of wild animals have become extinct in the wild. They include the northern white rhino, the Formosan clouded leopard, the Bermuda saw-whet owl, Cape Verde giant skink, Biaji dolphin and the Pyranean ibex.

In 2016, Internet of Elephants was launched. The team includes gamer Jake Manion and conservation biologist Raff Mares.

“I was interested in the intersection of technology and conservation. If people can be connected to other people and things all over the world via the internet, then what would happen if they were also connected to animals, and how would that change people's relationship with nature?” said Shah.

Chatting with children between the ages of six and 13 on a recent National Geographic online class, Shah and his team answered questions on everything from how to produce a video game using augmented reality, to programming, and what his favourite animal is.

“It’s the gibbon,” he replied. Found in the forests of Borneo, some gibbon species are critically endangered due to loss of habitat and hunting. “I love their song, their playfulness and their agility through the trees. But tomorrow, my favourite animal may be the elephant or the red panda or the leafy sea dragon,” he said. 

Then he asked the children what animals they would like to see featured in the games. The answers included the sloth.

Shah has travelled the world to watch animals in their natural habitats, trekking in the rain forests of central Africa to see chimpanzees and gorillas, and in Asia for orangutans and gibbons.

“But I started feeling guilty about enjoying the experience while knowing that their numbers were decreasing.

“I didn’t want to spend another 20 years sitting behind a desk and taking these great vacations. So in 2014, l quit my job and got involved in wildlife conservation,” Shah said.


Interviewing some of the researchers and scientists at Mondika site in Nouabalé Ndoki National Park. PHOTO | COURTESY | RAFAEL MARES


At the time he was working in Nairobi for a global IT company. He decided to stay in the city because “you have the chance to see elephants within a three-hour drive” and Kenya was an ideal place to build his conservation network.

He found that wildlife conservation was based on traditional fundraising and ecotourism, but with a limited audience.

“Conservationists are behind time and not catching up,” Shah says.

He says that saving wildlife means aggressively competing for people’s attention because they are so caught up in their daily lives.

His aim was to find ways for wildlife conservation to have its rightful place at the table as one of the most important things in our world today.

“Our number one goal is to engage people to become active and give them a way to participate locally. We want to create more direct connections between people and conservation work that could be happening far away. We want to activate people's curiosity and also nudge their behaviour through the relationships with the animals or scientists that we feature.

“There is no time left to waste. We need to find ways to create 20 million, 40 million or even a hundred million wildlife addicts.

“That way we can celebrate the life of these animals and not mourn their deaths.”