Force of Nature: Moses Tsang And The Nature Conservancy Go Global
Listen to the forest. What do you hear? Noises made by insects, birds and animals, leaves rustling and even trees creaking in the wind. These sounds can tell us how healthy a forest is. By planting listening devices and running the recordings through an algorithm, conservationists are learning more about the health of such ecosystems.
This technology is just one of many ways The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is helping to protect the environment—in this case in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. It’s a development Moses Tsang, a global board member of the charity, believes has much potential. “Using technology to improve the outcome of conservation is one thing I’m very excited about, and it’s really just at the budding stage,” he says.
Science vs. technology
Moses has been involved with TNC for almost two decades, and for him it all began with science rather than technology. “When I had my first encounter with TNC, I was very impressed, firstly because they were very science-based and non-confrontational. I liked that. These are the traits that really distinguish TNC from other NGOs in conservation,” he says.
From a base of science, TNC is finding new ways to use technology to enhance its environmental mission. “The conservation community’s tools have not been updated in a long time,” says Charles Bedford, TNC’s regional managing director for Asia-Pacific.
“Our hallmark is science, and science is just a half step from technology, and what we’ve really focused on in the last eight to 10 years, and more and more in the last five years, is how do we use the latest technology to gain control over the natural resources that we need?”
There are a number of ways. Satellite photography, satellite imaging and drones are providing new means for monitoring the illegal logging that is such a significant problem in the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Artificial intelligence capable of recognising different species of fish in photographs is being used in Pacific fisheries to monitor the size and distribution of various species. “It’s amazing how efficient we have become at taking life out of the ocean,” says Charles. “The problem is that we don’t know how much there is left or how much is sustainable.”
In Indonesia, TNC is photographing snapper and grouper using a system that can analyse the images to establish the health of the species so that over time scientists will be able to spot trends and take action to enable fish populations to recover before it’s too late.
Such data has already been used to effect industry change. In January, Honolulu-based seafood company Norpac Fisheries Export signed an agreement committing to protect the Indo-Pacific fishery by not buying immature snapper and grouper from Indonesia, where overtargeting of fish of pre-reproductive age has already led to significant declines in populations.
“We are really using all the tools that modern society has developed in defence of natural resources,” says Charles.
Moses got involved with TNC long before this kind of technology was available. In 2000 he was invited on a trip to Yunnan province, home of one of the organisation’s first projects in Mainland China. “I thought it was an interesting opportunity to understand what conservation is about, because I never knew before,” says Moses, whose background is the world of finance.
Trekking at 5,000 metres with supplementary oxygen tanks in the mountains around Shangri-la, it wasn’t the altitude that affected Moses as much as the passionate attitude of the people he encountered who worked for TNC. After the trip, he joined the organisation’s Asia-Pacific council, on the fundraising side, before becoming a member of the global governing board in 2010.
Making cities sustainable
Since Moses joined TNC, it has expanded its work in the region significantly, but there’s one issue Moses is particularly passionate about that spans the globe—the need to make cities sustainable. Urbanisation is gathering pace, with research suggesting 75 per cent of the global population could be living in urban areas by 2050. The ability of cities to handle this is pressing. “If we don’t address those issues, then we are not relevant,” says Moses.
A TNC initiative in the US, the Green Heart Project, is studying the link between greenery and human health in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, over five years, assessing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and stress among 700 participants, and monitoring air pollution, before and after the planting of 8,000 trees and shrubs to promote physical activity and decrease noise, stress and air pollution.
The participants will have annual check-ups to monitor the link between the improved environment and their health. This is something that could be introduced in any number of urban environments to promote more sustainable living.
Empowering Hong Kong
Hong Kong already has many of the characteristics of a sustainable city. “Think of the number of MTR riders every day. Think of the density. Think of the preserved open spaces, the green places, the parks. There’s no other Asian city like this,” says Charles, referring to the 75 per cent of Hong Kong set aside as country parks or protected areas.
“We have some problems. Air pollution is an issue. But that can be tackled through things like tree planting, through better urban planning, through education. And we’ve done that,” he continues, referring to TNC’s NatureWorks project, which seeks to empower Hong Kong’s young people to contribute to creating a sustainable future.
TNC also has another important project under way in Hong Kong—the restoration of its shellfish reefs. For more than 700 years Hongkongers have farmed oysters, but the shellfish habitat has been in decline recently because of overharvesting, dredging and coastal development. This is a significant environmental loss as oysters filter water, improving its quality and providing a healthier environment for a more biodiverse ecosystem.
“Did you know, one oyster in one day can clean a whole bathtub of dirty water?” says Moses.
In May last year, TNC launched its first artificial reef project at Lau Fau Shan in an effort to restore this critical coastal ecosystem and bring back the water-cleansing oysters. Its growth and progress are being monitored, and further potential sites are being identified.
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A passion for conservation
Moses’ passion for conservation is apparent and his influence on TNC, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has been significant, particularly with regard to raising funds. In 2014, with founding sponsorship from JPMorgan Chase, NatureVest was established as TNC’s conservation investing unit, focusing on the creation of investment opportunities that deliver both environmental results and financial returns in tackling big, pressing issues.
“Moses really has been in the middle of this transformation of TNC from a predominantly US-based organisation back when he started to much more of a global power in conservation, and it is in no small part due to his effort,” says Charles.
TNC’s next Hong Kong milestone occurs on March 22, 2019 with its gala dinner at the Grand Hyatt, which will feature live and silent auctions focused on art and wine. The goal is to surpass the US$6 million raised at its most recent gala here, in 2013.
Items to go under the hammer include images by National Geographic photographer and TNC supporter Michael Yamashita; original artworks by emerging artists from Korea, China and Spain; a range of exclusive experiences; and a selection of wines from some of the world’s finest vineyards, including six-litre bottles of Bordeaux’s finest, among them 1982 Margaux, Lafite, Ausone and Mouton, and a 1989 Haut-Brion. Guests will enjoy Lafite Rothschild and Haut-Brion vintages with a range of delectable dishes during the evening.
Meanwhile, Moses continues to give his all to TNC and he, too, has benefited from the relationship. Though officially retired, he still appears to be working full time, not only with TNC but also on his own venture investing in renewable energy, including wind and solar power. It’s something he says he would never have done had it not been for his exposure to TNC and its work.
“TNC is the reason I got excited to do what I am doing now—to support the trend for sustainable, renewable energy,” he says. “Over the last 18 years I have seen conservation as something that is really important.”
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