How data can protect wildlife

UN Development Programme
5 min readJul 26, 2019
Belize is one of the 18 range countries of the threatened jaguar. ©Enrique Aguirre/

In Southern Belize, you can walk through Central America’s last unbroken stretch of broadleaf forest. This key link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which acts as a natural land bridge between North and South America, hosts one of the world’s richest assemblages of biodiversity. While the majestic jaguar, the towering mahogany tree, and the iconic keel-billed toucan all call the forest home, it also sustains Belize’s people by providing water and livelihoods. Belize’s government is working to protect this biodiversity hotspot and many others through an extensive network of 103 protected areas that cover 36 percent of the country.

Despite this action, as in many parts of the world, forests are being cleared around these protected areas, which poses a major threat to the animals and people that depend on them. Yet, high-resolution, near real-time satellite imagery and scientific analyses are helping the government identify the locations where animals most need this forest for food and shelter, how they are moving through it, and which parts of it have the greatest risk of being cut or burned by humans. With this knowledge, conservationists are then taking more effective action. In Belize, this type of spatial data — which gathers geographic information — is helping the government advocate for additional land protection, such as their recent purchase of 12,000 hectares to help maintain connectivity in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This will help ensure that the animals in the broadleaf forest will have the land and water they need to survive.

Keel-billed toucans, Belize; howler monkey in a UNDP supported baboon sanctuary, Belize. ©UNDP/Lei Katof

A year ago, UNDP launched the UN Biodiversity Lab in partnership with UN Environment and the UN Biodiversity Convention to support nearly 140 countries to use spatial data to better deliver on their global commitments to biodiversity and sustainable development. The UN Biodiversity Lab enables policymakers to access over 100 global spatial datasets on biodiversity, protected areas, sustainable development, and human pressure in a Geographic Information Systems-free platform. This means that someone without advanced technical training can view and analyze these data, as well as communicate the results to other policymakers through…