Gather the Data, Work for Change

Before an issue can be addressed, specific details associated with it need to be quantified, so first Vulcan and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (PGAFF) work to understand the gaps. Then we move forward, monitoring as we go to measure impact and, when appropriate, leveraging the data gleaned to advocate for policy reform.


Great Elephant Census

  • Active: 2013-2016 
  • Funder: Vulcan  
  • Program Area: Conservation 
Africa’s savannah elephants have long been threatened by poachers. But in 2005, the killings began rising dramatically because of increased global demand for ivory. Before the threat could be addressed though, it had to be quantified, so we undertook the challenge of conducting a comprehensive, aerial survey aptly named the Great Elephant Census. It was the first of its kind in more than 40 years, and the first coordinated, standardized count ever attempted. 

We brought together more than 90 scientists, 286 flight crew members, and six different NGOs. We surveyed 463,000 square km in 18 different countries. Everything was coordinated by Vulcan with assistance from a group of independent experts who reviewed and validated all results. 

Once completed in 2016, the numbers were discouraging: Savannah elephants were disappearing at a rate of 25,00-35,000 each year and populations decreased 30% over a seven-year period in 15 of the 18 countries. But there was a silver lining: the study was so compelling it created action. 

Scientists with the Great Elephant Census fly over a herd of elephants in Botswana. 

For example: Mozambique, Tanzania, and China immediately closed their domestic ivory markets. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now patrol regularly to strengthen anti-poaching efforts. And new laws in Washington State, Hawaii, and Oregon ban the import of products like ivory.

The Great Elephant Census also catalyzed Vulcan’s creation of EarthRanger, an online software solution (mentioned above) that lets park rangers track movements of wildlife, rangers, vehicles, and poachers in real time — all thanks to alerts from various cameras, microphones, and sensors.

Partners: African Parks, Elephants Without Borders, Frankfurt Zoological Society, IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society

If you have the information, you can move mountains. You can move the hearts of politicians and the public. You can tell them what’s going on, and if it’s credible, that will drive the whole process. 

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Director, Save the Elephants

Gather the Data, Work for Change

Allen Coral Atlas

  • Active: 2017-present  
  • Funder: Vulcan  
  • Program Area: Oceans 

Over the last 30 years, half the world’s coral reefs have died. This has resulted in the dramatic decline of marine life and biodiversity. It has also created major threats to coastal communities and economies because, while coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean, nearly 1 billion people and 25% of all marine life depend on them.  

Protecting these reefs requires gathering vast amounts of data. And yet, prior to our involvement, more was known about the moon’s surface than about the location, structure, and integrity of the world’s coral reefs. That is primarily because very few tools exist for getting the job done. In fact, fewer than one quarter of all reefs were mapped, and even then, data was only captured by visual SCUBA assessments and light aircraft or, in a very few places, low-resolution satellite images. 

So we responded by creating the Allen Coral Atlas in 2018 — a game-changing coral conservation tool developed in partnership with coral reef scientists, universities, NGOs, and private entities. The Atlas provides the first-ever, regularly updated, 3.7-meter-resolution satellite images of shallow-water reefs and will complete its mission to map and monitor the world’s coral reefs by mid-2021. 

This new satellite technology cuts through atmospheric interference and water-column distortion to accurately differentiate between coral, algae, rock, rubble, sand, and seagrass. It also identifies inner reef flats, patch reefs, sheltered reef slopes, and even just shallow lagoons. 

Partners: Arizona State University, National Geographic Society, Planet, University of Queensland 

Seeing change is the first step in taking responsibility for it. By putting the most complete, up-to-date picture of the world’s corals in the hands of scientists, conservationists, and communities, we hope to accelerate action on the coral crisis before it’s too late.

Andrew Zolli, Vice President of Global Impact Initiatives, Planet 

Although our study shows substantial negative human impacts on reef shark populations, it’s clear the central problem exists in the intersection between high human population densities, destructive fishing practices, and poor governance. We found that robust shark populations can exist alongside people when those people have the will, the means, and a plan to take conservation action.
Dr. Demian Chapman, Global FinPrint co-lead and Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Institute of Environment at Florida International University

Global FinPrint

  • Active: 2015-2019
  • Funder: PGAFF  
  • Program Area: Oceans 
Decades of exploitation have led scientists to estimate nearly one-third of the ocean’s shark species are at risk of extinction. Many of the largest species’ populations have declined by 90 percent, and it is estimated that more than one hundred million sharks are removed from the ocean every year. While it’s been known for years that sharks are in trouble, sufficient data didn’t exist for scientists to understand the severity of the problem. So, much like our Great Elephant Census project, which surveyed elephant populations, PGAFF funded the Global FinPrint initiative to assess the world’s shark populations in coral reefs. 

Data was generated from baited, remote, underwater video stations (BRUVS) via video captured by “Chum Cams” over a period of four years. Scientists then analyzed more than 15,000 hours of video from surveys of 371 reefs in 58 countries, states, and territories. 

When the findings were published in the journal Nature in 2020, the data showed staggering devastation. Sharks were entirely absent in nearly 20% of the reefs surveyed — including off the coasts of entire nations in some cases. The team also concluded sharks are functionally extinct in many of the world’s reefs. 

Thankfully, the study also identified a path forward by offering conservation measures to help these iconic predators recover. These included restricting use of certain gear, setting catch limits, and establishing national-level bans on shark catching and trading. The project’s data also helps governments justify shark conservation investments while better understanding the impact of overfishing. In response, several nations including Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize, are implementing critical changes in their shark management plans.

Partners: The Australian Institute of Marine Science, Curtin University, Dalhousie University, Florida International University, and James Cook University 
Gather the Data, Work for Change

Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES)

  • Active: 2016-2020 
  • Funder: PGAFF (2016) and Vulcan (2019) 
  • Program Area: Conservation and Oceans

As noted above, in 2016 results from The Great Elephant Census provided crucial data that identified an alarming decline in elephant populations across the savannah landscape — a 30% decrease over a seven-year period because of increased poaching. Similarly, data from our other projects revealed sharks and rays were being fished at a rate that put many species on the brink of extinction. That same year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List assessments painted a concerning picture for the world’s sharks and rays — roughly one-quarter of all sharks are threatened by extinction.

Critically endangered mako sharks received international protections thanks to CITES. Courtesy Shawn Heinrichs.

But identifying the problem is one thing, creating enforceable policy is another. Enter the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between 182 countries that aims to ensure the international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This treaty offers one of the best opportunities to catalyze global and national level policies that protect at-risk species. That’s why in 2016, we supported efforts to list endangered shark and ray species under CITES protections, while also helping put in place bans on the sales of rhino horns and extending moratoriums on international ivory sales.

Our impact continued in 2019 when we redoubled our efforts to increase protections for sharks and rays resulting in securing a record number of government commitments to provide protection for all giant guitarfish, wedgefish, and mako sharks.

This meeting likely marks our last chance to initiate the global momentum needed to save these sharks and rays before they are lost forever. We are excited by the unprecedented support for these measures that will drive efforts to bring the unsustainable global trade in shark fins and meat under control. If we don’t act now, we will lose these animals and the unique and critical role they play in marine ecosystems.

Luke Warwick, Director, Shark and Ray Conservation at Wildlife Conservation Society 

When you’re talking about losing all of nature, this is not a spectator sport anymore. Everybody has to become active somehow.
Louie Psihoyos, Director, “Racing Extinction” 

Racing Extinction

  • Active: 2013-2016 
  • Funder: Vulcan 

An emotional story told through a compelling documentary film can increase awareness and help create meaningful change. “Racing Extinction” is a perfect example. 

It showcases a team of artists and activists as they expose two driving forces which, if unchecked, could result in the extinction of half the species on earth: The first is the international wildlife trade which creates bogus markets at the expense of creatures that have survived for millions of years. The other driving force is all around us yet hiding in plain sight — and it’s a world oil and gas companies don’t want us to see. 

The film was complemented by an outreach campaign, designed in partnership with the Oceanic Preservation Society, that includes educational materials and resources to educate viewers on how small changes can affect the well-being of our entire planet. 

The campaign resulted in a number of victories in the fight to save endangered animals. For example, in 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act into law. Worldwide petitions have also resulted in bans on the shark fin trade. And, here at home the Washington Animal Trafficking, Initiative 1401, was passed in 2015 to amend penalties for trafficking certain endangered species and their products, further protecting endangered species.

Initiative 1401

  • Active: 2016  
  • Funder: Vulcan  
  • Program Area: Conservation 
No elephants live or are being poached in the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, since 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has seized more than 50 shipments of elephant products in Washington state. Similarly, in other states around the country, weak penalties for illegal wildlife trafficking allow the “extinction economy” to go unchecked. Because of this, the best way to protect endangered wildlife globally is to eliminate illegal markets for products locally — by creating strong wildlife trafficking laws and severe penalties.
Initiative 1401 was a first-of-its-kind ballot measure in Washington, prohibiting the purchase, sale, and distribution of products made from 10 endangered animal species including elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah, pangolin, marine turtle, shark, or ray. By working closely with partners from the nation’s leading conservation, education, and zoological organizations, and with support from grassroots donors across the United States, Vulcan was able to help get I-1401 passed (with more than 70% support) in November 2015. 
This legislation is part of the worldwide movement to create stronger anti-trafficking laws at the local, state, federal, and global level where illegal markets often hide in plain sight within legal ones. Since I-1401, similar legislation has since been passed in Hawaii, Oregon, New York, and California.
Partners: 96 Elephants, African Wildlife Foundation, Born Free USA, Conservation Northwest, Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Mainstream Republicans of Washington, Metro Parks Tacoma, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Seattle Aquarium, Sierra Club, WildAid, Washington Conservation Voters, Washington State Democrats, Woodland Park Zoo, The Zoo Society

Today’s victory is a step forward in the race against extinction. Thanks to the wisdom, compassion and determination of Washington voters, state authorities now have stronger tools to crack down on the illegal trade in endangered animal parts, which will help us save some of Earth’s most iconic creatures. But our work is not done. Because even as we were casting our ballots to pass I-1401, poachers in Africa continued to kill elephants to harvest their tusks, and illegal fishing crews slaughtered countless sharks, just for their fins. So our fight for a more humane planet continues. I-1401 is a model that other states can follow, and I hope they will.

Paul G. Allen


Focus on the People

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