New platform offers toolkit for companies to prove their eco claims

New platform offers toolkit for companies to prove their eco claims

A new platform allows companies and landowners to monitor the ecosystems in their supply chains, as governments around the world increasingly consider regulations that require businesses to account for biodiversity.

The tool, NatureHelm, provides a subscription-based platform where large corporate entities or individual landowners can track significant species and ecosystem markers on their properties.

The platform also provides analysis of how factors are changing over time and recommendations to improve biodiversity outcomes. NatureHelm plans to launch this month.

“[Tracking biodiversity] is no longer something that is a nice thing; this is going to become regulated,” says Debbie Saunders, a conservation ecologist and founder of NatureHelm.

“It’s quite revolutionary for me. I used to go bird-watching for my job, and all of a sudden, I feel like I can help create positive change at a global scale.”

The new push toward better accounting for biodiversity comes in part from the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, adapted by the United Nations in December 2022.

Its targets include “30 by 30,” which aims to protect 30% of terrestrial, inland water, coastal and marine areas by 2030. The plan also has a target to place 30% of degraded ecosystems under effective restoration plans.

Already, the EU has formally adopted rules requiring that companies prove their products aren’t causing deforestation or forest degradation.

The interface for the new platform NatureTech which allows companies and landowners to track important biodiversity markers. Image courtesy of NatureTech.
The interface for the new platform NatureTech which allows companies and landowners to track important biodiversity markers. Image courtesy of NatureTech.

Saunders’s idea for NatureHelm came from a decade of working with her other for-profit company, Wildlife Drones, which sells aerial drones that can track radio-frequency wildlife tags. In working with biologists and conservation organizations, Saunders saw just how much data new technology was collecting — images from camera traps, animal tracking paths, satellite measures of tree cover, bioacoustic surveys — and yet that this information was rarely used to measure the health of whole ecosystems. When the EU adopted the Kunming-Montreal Framework, she saw an opportunity to put all of that data to good use.

Take, for example, a hypothetical coffee grower with a small farm. Upon subscribing to NatureHelm, the company deploys an algorithm that scrapes global databases and scientific papers about the region, looking for significant local biodiversity targets. This could be an endangered bird that needs protection, an invasive rat that could be targeted for removal, or local pollinators known to be key for coffee plants.

As managers begin tracking any of these measures — say, conducting surveys, placing bioacoustic monitors, or installing camera traps — they can automatically upload or manually add their findings to their individual portal. Graphs and charts will show how metrics change across space and time. Every year, subscribers receive a report of how biodiversity indicators on their lands have changed and, ideally, in response to conservation actions.

NatureHelm also offers consulting to any customers who want to learn how to deploy new technology for monitoring.

“Wherever possible, we want to empower them to do the work themselves, because that’s the most affordable and sustainable way.” Saunders says. “And it means that they’re really engaged in it as well.”

In addition to smallholder farms, the company is targeting its services to large corporations, which might track the same metrics across their supply chains, especially as new regulations come into force. NatureHelm is currently a venture of Wildlife Drones, but Saunders says they plan to split it off as its own company within the coming year.

“We are not going to be the database of all biodiversity data; there are already massive organizations building really amazing databases that people can access, but those are still just the data,” Saunders says. “There are no insights with that. There’s no meaning for people. They need something that they can relate to, and so a big part of this is just that pulling-together of things.”

Illegal forest clearing and burning in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Illegal forest clearing and burning in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This is one of the appeals for the company Aluan, which produces virgin organic coconut oil from Indonesia and is an early partner of NatureHelm. Aluan has multiple conservation projects across 300 smallholder farms, including restoration projects for several species of sea turtle and the re-release and monitoring of locally important birds, including two subspecies of white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus). While Aluan currently sells its coconut oil to some large companies, including U.K.-based Lush Cosmetics, it’s actively looking for more buyers attracted to its conservation credentials.

“We’re already collecting quite a lot of data from rangers in the field, but we’re not presenting that well at all,” says Luke Swainson, Aluan’s co-founder. “One of the big things we’re looking at is a way to bring that data together and present that in an interactive way.”

Vince Heffernan, another early subscriber and the owner of Moorlands Biodynamic Lamb, a 1,214-hectare (3,000-acre) sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia, says he also has active conservation programs, such as planting trees to create habitat for migrating birds, like Latham’s snipe (Gallinago hardwickii) and the rainbow bee-eater (Merops ornatus). He says having data from NatureHelm proving the impact of his work could help him sell to more conservation-minded buyers. But he also sees the potential for it to improve the system more broadly.

“Banks seem to be absolutely thrilled at the idea of running ads talking about a better greener world, and I’d like to hold them to account by saying: ‘If you want a better greener world, when a client like me can prove [that’s] what I’m doing, shouldn’t you therefore give [me] a better rate of interest on my mortgage?’” Heffernan says. “I think it’s the opposite of greenwashing — it’s adding integrity to the processes, and that’s what we all want. We want to buy products and deal with banks that walk the talk.”

This is, ultimately, Saunders’s big vision: ensuring that there’s transparency in biodiversity accounting, and to see that transparency leading to change.

“What I want to see is that biodiversity uptick,” she says. “I want to see people improving their lands, and to be part of that change. To think beyond a Band-aid, and actually improve things, is so badly needed.”

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This article by Claudia Geib was first published by on 16 November 2023. Lead Image: The white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus) is heavily traded and threatened in Indonesia. Image by Jason Thompson via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

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