Animals on Laptop Screen
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Is the Web Taking the Wild Out of Wildlife?

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law Molly sat down after dinner, picked up her iPad and—a couple of swipes later—said to herself quietly: “Ah, Mary Lee is near Georgia today.” A week later, Mary Lee apparently had made it to South Carolina. Recently, to the delight of Molly, a long-time Outerbanks resident, Mary Lee showed up at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

What’s so special about Mary Lee? Probably just another traveling Facebook friend clogging the news feed. That’s what I thought. But when I finally got around to asking, it turned out Mary Lee was an entirely different kind of beast: a 16-foot, 3500-pound white shark with a satellite-enabled tracker from OCEARCH (check where Mary Lee is right now).

With a little bit more effort you can follow Cheeseburger, the sea turtle, Camellia, the eagle, or N26132, the Svalbard polar bear.

Mary Lee is not the only wild animal you can follow online. The global shark tracker is way ahead in making animal satellite tracking user-friendly, but with a little bit more effort you can follow Cheeseburger, the sea turtle, Camellia, the eagle, or N26132, the Svalbard polar bear. If you want to see wild animals live you check the goings on at a South African pond, find out what the condors at thez Sand Diego Zoo are up to or choose from a rapidly proliferating selection of webcams. (For a small sample, check the wild animal live video wall below.)

Watching or following animals online is popular. With tracking equipment getting better and cheaper everyday, it is not so hard to imagine a future in which large parts of the natural world are in some shape or form virtually accessible 24/7. Will this constant monitoring change our relationship to “the wild”? Will it be good for both sides?

What Animal Would You Like to See Today?

Live streaming video by Ustream

Bears at Brooks Falls in Alaska
Live streaming video by Ustream

Baby Ostrich Cam
Live streaming video by Ustream

Black Eagles of Roodekrans, South Africa
Video streaming by Ustream

Honey Bee Landing Zone, Bavaria
Live streaming video by Ustream

Japanese Sea Nettles, Vancouver, BC
Live streaming video by Ustream

Pete’s Pond, Botswana
Live streaming video by Ustream

Warszewo White Storks, Poland
Live streaming video by Ustream

For those with a little bit more time: Foliage Cam, Ipswich, MA
Live streaming video by Ustream

Operation Migration Whooping Crane Cam

In the case of Mary Lee and Molly, connecting wildlife to the web worked out well. Just by following along my mother-in-law built a connection and started to care about another creature – even one as fearsome as a white shark. This kind of emotional attachment or “species companionship” as scientists call it, works wonders for conservation purposes and explains why nature non-profits are at the forefront of today’s webcam wielding research projects. Not only does a live image of an endangered animal create a much more stirring call to action than any research report, naming an eagle after Stephen Colbert can also help in the constant clamor for attention and funding.

But economic considerations aside, showing and monitoring the life of wild- and even plant life has great potential to save species and help maintain our planet’s biodiversity. Here is an example from the Pacific Northwest: quilted maple, a very rare kind of wood from very old maple trees can only be found around here but is prized all over the world for musical instruments, particularly electric guitars. The result: despite federal protection and tough purchasing standards, Big Leaf Maple trees get cut down and sold on the black market. If sensors, cameras and networks could track the health of these rare trees in remote locations, illegally chopping down trees would have real consequences. Done on a large scale, proper monitoring can stop the atmosphere of impunity surrounding environmental crimes.

So in the end, is Mary Lee, the White Shark better off with Molly, the Human following her travels online? She is for now, because the more people care, the more likely it is that white sharks will survive. But she is also getting closer and closer to a humanity who soon will know exactly where the wild things are.

Our relationship to what we consider “the wild” could also change. We might feel closer to other creatures but the mystique and awe will diminish. Safari operators won’t have to fear for customers, but these customers might increasingly want to see specific animals they have followed on the Elephant cam in preparation for their “soft adventure”.

Aside from a fading mystique, an internet-connected “web of creatures” is also a temptation to do what we like to do with animals we don’t fear (and don’t want to eat): think they are like us humans. We start to believe animals live, feel and think just like us—and we get really upset when mother eagle unceremoniously dumps the smallest eaglet out of the nest. Our pets have already been drafted in as vehicle for self-expression (note the up to 100 million Facebook accounts of pets). Now, with wild animals just a few clicks away, any day, our interaction with them also becomes less of a natural and more of a designed experience.

So in the end, is Mary Lee, the White Shark better off with Molly, the Human following her travels online? She is for now, because the more people care, the more likely it is that white sharks will survive. But she is also getting closer and closer to a humanity who soon will know exactly where the wild things are.

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