Citizen scientists winners at conservation awards

2:09 pm on 8 November 2016

Citizen scientists around the country are the real winners from this year's conservation innovation awards, with funding going towards helping communities tackle freshwater quality and kauri dieback.

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The River Watch water device will monitor the quality of waterways, and can be used by scientists, regional councils and communities doing restoration projects. Photo: 123rf

A project which uses a drone to track wildlife for research received one of the three $25,000 grants at last night's WWF Conservation Innovation Awards in Wellington.

Freshwater quality is rarely out of the headlines, but data on it is sparse according to one of the founders of Water Action Initiative, Grant Muir.

The volunteer group, known as WAI, aims to tackle pollution in waterways and has worked with Victoria University students to develop the River Watch water device.

The device is put into waterways for 48 hours and measures pH levels, chemical composition, discolouration and temperature.

The data can be retrieved with a Bluetooth phone app, and is uploaded to WAI's website to be used by communities on restoration projects, scientists and regional councils.

Mr Muir said they wanted the device to be cost-effective.

"The way we see it is it's going to be a tool that will aid the restoration and conservation of our freshwater in this country quite dynamically really, because this is the first time that we'll have available to us some sound, robust data."

He said the app would allow scientists and communities to see what was actually happening in waterways, to the level of detail which is not currently available.

In a similar theme, Groundtruth is looking to tackle kauri dieback, a fungus-like pathogen which can kill the native tree, and is spread through soil movement, on peoples' tramping boots for example.

The Paekakariki-based company is developing an app where forest users can enter information if they spot the dieback which is then loaded up into a wider database to be used by researchers.

It can also tell people what areas the dieback is present, so they can avoid them.

The company's managing director, Peter Handford, said the award acknowledged there was an opportunity to use technology to assist communities to solve some big conservation problems.

"In a citizen science way it's like putting hundreds of kauri rangers on the ground," he said.

Forest and Bird member John Sumich has initiated a number conservation projects.

It was when he was looking after pateke released in West Auckland wetland that he happened upon drone manufacturer Philip Solaris, from X-Craft, and realised he might have the answer to the problem of monitoring the rare bird.

"It was one of those lightbulb moments, you just think 'This is the way around the problem'," Dr Sumich said.

The drone is capable of detecting the signals of animals that have a transmitter on them and can do that in treacherous conditions.

The prototype has been deployed and can detect multiple transmitter signals on differing frequencies which the developers believe is a world first.

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