By: Daria Ivanova,

The field of environmental conservation has never been the most technologically advanced one, partially because of the lack of funds and partially because of the lack of motivation on behalf of the conservation community.[1] This, generally, old-school community has been attempting to solve main problems by extending protected areas and investing in ecosystem services, such as water purification.[2] However, a younger generation of conservation actors believes that this is not enough to address exponentially growing and ever-changing environmental problems.[3] Alex Dehgan and Paul Bunje perceived this problem in the environmental conservation field and seized the opportunity.[4] They figured that if technology can help solve wildlife extinction, why can’t they use it?[5] In fact, they believe in the power of technology to the extent that they claim that “[w]e’ll need a tribe of hackers, makers, economists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to help a sometimes technophobic conservation community reverse the sixth mass extinction.”[6]

A device Conservation X Labs has been developing is a child of the problem it is being created to eradicate. Conservation X Labs was awarded $159,000 to work on the development of the device which could analyze the origin and the species of timber imports.[7] These funds were obtained from a giant lumber company, Lumber Liquidators, which violated the Lacey Act protecting wildlife and plants from illegal harvesting.[8] The investigation purporting to uncover those illegal activities spanned for several years.[9] The Environmental Investigation Agency agents have been traveling from across the world to China to find out who smuggled Russian timber there.[10] This all could have been prevented if the law enforcement personnel had a device which could identify the type of timber smugglers were attempting to illegally introduce into the market.[11] Now it seems to be closer to reality.

One of the reasons why the scientific community has not used the technology that much was the price. However, nowadays, it is becoming more accessible. For example, in Biodiversity Conservation All. v. United States Forest Serv., 765 F.3d 1264 (10th Cir. 2014), Biodiversity Conservation Alliance contested the United States Forest Service’s decision to change one of Wyoming’s trails. The Forest Service used satellite imagery to identify the number of fens which could be affected by the change and the plant life in fens.[12] Even though the technology in that case did not necessarily work to preserve the environment, the Conservation X Labs’ device promises incredibly beneficial uses.

The Conservative X device looks like a video game joystick, but it is actually a hand-held scanner which is not as expensive as similar modern prototypes.[13] The system behind using the scanner is following. Living cells have a part which the scientists call a “barcode.”[14] The “barcode” is a sequence of DNA located in mitochondria which has 648 base-pair region.[15] The University of Guelph in Ontario contains the Barcode of Life Database which has the mitochondrial DNA of 275,000 species.[16] Using this database, scientists can identify the sequences specific to a certain species, then synthesize it and freeze-dry onto reference chips.[17] The people using the scanner would insert a small piece of a ground-up tissue mixed with a drop of water in a one of two kinds of microfluidic chips.[18] One type of chip would simply say yes or no, whereas the other type could compare to up to several references chips.[19] Introducing this type of device would not only offer the enforcement agencies a way to efficiently prevent numerous violations, but would it also encourage the innovation in the environmental enforcement field. By showing that technology can be both affordable and beneficial for protecting the environment, Conservation X Labs and other similar entities do way more than just creating technological help for the conservation community. It forces a strong culture clash within the whole community.[20]


[1] Scott Dance, Concerned Activists, Lawmakers Waiting for Delayed Data on Maryland’s Environmental Law Enforcement, (Oct. 31, 2016 06:42PM),

[2] Richard Leakey, Conservation Alone ‘Is Not Enough’, BBCNews (Sep. 10, 2007),

[3] Eillie Anzilotti, Bold Conservation Ideas Go from Concept to Reality on This New Collaboration Platform, Fast (Sep. 20, 2017),

[4] Virginia Gewin, A Handheld DNA Scanner Could Crack Down on Wildlife Identity Theft, The (Feb. 9, 2018),

[5] Julia Luthringer, Who Are Tomorrow’s Leaders in Ocean Conservation?, The Blog (Sep. 15, 2016, 03:17PM),

[6] Gewin, supra note 4.

[7] Id.

[8] Kiken v. Lumber Liquidators Holdings, Inc., 155 F. Supp. 3d 593 (E.D. Va. 2015).

[9] Jani Actman, From Trees to Tigers, Case Shows Cost of Illegal Logging, National (Nov. 10, 2015),

[10] Id.

[11] Ian Evans, Deeply Talks: Fighting Illegal Fishing With Big Data, Robots and A.I., (Feb.14, 2018),

[12] Biodiversity Conservation All. v. U. S. Forest Serv., 765 F.3d 1264 (10th Cir. 2014).

[13] Gewin, supra note 4.

[14] Nick Lane, Biodiversity: On the Origin of Bar Codes, Nature.Com (Nov. 18, 2009),

[15] Nicola Davis, How DNA Barcodes Can Beat the Wildlife Traffickers, The Guardian (Aug. 16, 2014),

[16] Sue Palminteri, Portable DNA Analysis Tool Identifies Species on Site to Help Combat Wildlife Crime, Mongabay (Dec. 6, 2017),

[17] Gewin, supra note 4.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

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