A Decade of Impact

Fuel Innovation While Leveraging Technology

Technology solves problems and improves lives. That’s why Vulcan and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (PGAFF) create philanthropic tools for conservation and action — often unlike any the world has seen — to protect endangered species, heal the environment, and find a better way.

Fuel Innovation While Leveraging Technology


  • Active: 2016-present
  • Funder/Project Lead: Vulcan 
  • Program Area: Conservation 

In response to the alarming results of the 2016 Great Elephant Census, which revealed a 30% decline in savanna elephant populations over seven years, Vulcan partnered with world leaders in conservation and technology, as well as governments and NGOs, to understand how to help protect this critically endangered species. Together we developed technology that came to be known as EarthRanger, an online software solution that helps managers in protected areas make informed, conservation-related decisions.

Rangers at Big Life Foundation protect the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa. Courtesy Jeremy Goss, Big Life Foundation

These regions are vast — in many cases tens of thousands of square kilometers. But with EarthRanger, the data from more than 11,000 devices of 60+ types of digital radios, animal collars, vehicle tracking, and sensors is compiled and transformed into actionable graphics and visualizations. This gives officials the ability to deploy resources quickly and efficiently when and where they’re needed. For example, if a snare is discovered or an elephant enters a human settlement, the closest rangers can be dispatched immediately. 
Since it was first deployed at Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 2016, EarthRanger has expanded dramatically. It now monitors wildlife reserves in more than 100 sites across 30 countries as it tracks the locations of over 50 endangered and vulnerable species. 

And, as the community of users continues to grow, so do use cases. This new technology is now helping to protect endangered eastern black rhinos in the Serengeti, watching for illegal deforestation in Southeast Asia, and curbing illegal mining activity in Belize. This steady expansion in vastly different locations (from the North American prairie to the coast of Mozambique) shows what a powerful enforcement tool EarthRanger is for protected area managers everywhere. 
Founding Partners: African Parks, Lewa Wildlife, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), Save the Elephants, SMART Partnership, Wildlife Conservation Society

Tracking technology gives elephants a voice, showing us where they want to be in different circumstances. EarthRanger gives us a platform not only to watch elephant movements in real time but to inspire analyses that help plan landscapes for the future.

Frank Pope, CEO, Save the Elephants

Collaborations such as this will help governments and monitoring agencies achieve more effective ocean governance. Our combined capabilities will promote greater transparency in fishing activity and provide a more effective and efficient means of monitoring and control.
Tony Long, CEO, Global Fishing Watch


  • Active: 2017-present  
  • Funder/Project Lead: Vulcan 
  • Program Area: Oceans 

The earth's vast, blue oceans sustain and nourish the planet. Yet, they’re threatened by climate change, local pressures, and over-fishing. Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, worth billions of dollars and impacting millions of people, is a major driver of ocean health decline. In 2020, 93% of the world's major fish stocks were either fully exploited, over exploited, or significantly depleted because of unsustainable and illegal fishing. 
We created Skylight in 2017 as a tool for reducing IUU. Skylight empowers maritime analysts to identify suspicious vessel behavior and alert authorities who can take enforcement action. By watching for suspicious behaviors like transshipment (transferring fish or other goods from one vessel to another while in transit), refueling, and illegal entry into protected areas, Skylight makes it possible to efficiently dispatch targeted patrols and act, creating a real-time deterrent to IUU.  
Skylight analyzes millions of real-time data points, including those from Automatic Identification System and Synthetic Aperture Radar imagery, together with information about vessels and their history using advanced machine learning to help fisheries analysts quickly identify where they should focus resources.  
Skylight currently monitors 16 million square kilometers of ocean across 19 countries. Recently, it was instrumental in successful joint operation in Ghana where the Ghanian navy, Skylight, the UN Office of Drug and Crime, Trygg Mat Tracking, and Global Fishing Watch collaborated to investigate 14 suspicious vessels. The action resulted in penalties against three of the vessels and the fourth being temporarily detained.
To further expose illegal fishing, Vulcan Productions created “Ghost Fleet,” an award-winning documentary that brings attention to Thailand’s fishing industry. By telling compelling stories of human trafficking survivors, “Ghost Fleet” has helped make the seafood industry aware of criminal practices and encourage participation in Know the Chain, a resource for companies and investors to understand and address forced labor risks within their global supply chains, to create more industry transparency.

Partners: Blue Nature Alliance, Global Fishing Watch, International Maritime Control and Surveillance Network, National Geographic, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, Oceans5, Trygg Mat Tracking, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, WildAid

Fuel Innovation While Leveraging Technology

Deep Argo Array and Antarctica Seaglider Drones

UW Polar Ice Sheet Robotic Exploration 
  • Active: 2017-2020
  • Funder: PGAFF
  • Program Area: Climate
NOAA Deep Argo
  • Active: 2016-2021
  • Funder: PGAFF
  • Program Area: Climate 
Dr. Pierre Dutrieux working on one of the three Seagliders deployed in West Antarctica.

Because of the vast amounts of data required to build them, using climate change models to predict the impact and damage of climate change is challenging. The situation is further complicated by the fact data often lies miles below the ocean surface, deep in the sea ice. Nevertheless, it’s critical that we improve the understanding of our changing world by expanding the data sets. To address these unique, data-gathering challenges, PGAFF funded and supported the deployment of two cutting-edge technologies: Deep Argo floats and Seaglider drones.

The Deep Argo project is one of the first to gather a comprehensive sampling of data from an entire deep ocean basin. Its findings contribute to an already-existing array of data-collecting floats around the world, measuring ocean temperatures and salinity levels. We helped fund floats that could collect data at depths greater than 4,000 meters, providing insights into the deep ocean.  

The Seaglider Drone project has proven that over long periods in extreme conditions, robots can use acoustic signals to navigate into remote cavities deep below Antarctic sea ice, where they monitor the amount of water flowing in and out. The data they return is helping scientists build more accurate models of ice sheet dynamics — vital information for coastal communities. 

The Seaglider work contributes to the global body of data that informs models which predict sea-level rise. It also partly inspired the creation of Vulcan’s Climate Modeling program, which leverages the latest programming languages, supercomputing, and machine learning technologies to build better, faster climate models. 

Partners: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, NOAA, University of Washington 

It’s like we’ve had a candle in a dark room and now we’re going to flip on the lamp. We’ll see all the details. 

Gregory C. Johnson, Oceanographer, NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory


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