Real-time monitoring of environmental data is becoming increasingly common, largely due to the expansion of communications networks and improvements in wireless technologies. A recent paper by lead author, Jake Wall, a geographer at UBC, reviews preliminary evidence based on monitoring 94 African elephants in ecosystems in Kenya (Chyulu-Hilla, Laikipia, Mara, Mt. Kenya and Samburu) and South Africa (Kruger-Limpopo). http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/13-1971.1Wall et al.’s paper is the latest in an emerging research stream that utilizes geospatial technologies to assist in conservation efforts. Much of this research has emanated under the auspices of Save the Elephants Foundation (http://www.savetheelephants.org) and its research partners.
Mostly African elephants make the news for poaching (as elephants are killed to harvest ivory that is exported to Asian markets) and declining populations (the South Africa elephant population is a notable exception). According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the total number of elephants poached in Africa has declined from its peak in 2011, but over 20,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2013 so that the large mammal continues to face an immediate threat to its survival. Current rates of killing exceed elephant natural population growth rates. Moreover, elephant populations in countries with civil unrest and sporadic fighting remain doubly threatened, and in these locations their numbers are experiencing a very rapid rate of decline.
Southern Africa holds more than half of known African elephants. Eastern Africa accounts for 28% of the elephant population, while Central Africa holds approximately 16%. West Africa’s share is less than 2% and in this region elephant ranges are spread thinly within 13 countries (See Map).
In particular research sites, elephants are being outfitted with different types of tracking collars that connect to mobile networks to determine which collar prototype functions best. Working in sync, GPS and satellite communications are deployed to study the movements of particular African elephants. The Lewa Wildlife Conservatory in Northern Kenya was an early adapter in outfitting elephants with tracking collars that connected to the Safaricom mobile network, a major service provider in East Africa. Refinements of this technology since its introduction now permit researchers to link data generated by tracking collars to a near real-time location (within 5 minutes) so that the position and movement trajectory of an animal can be viewed within a geographic information system (GIS), thereby shedding light on the precise movement of elephants and herds.
Spatial data generated can provide novel opportunities for wildlife conservation and research. (1) Desktop or mobile software programs (e.g., Google Earth) are becoming important tools in monitoring wildlife in the absence of continued field observations. (2) Algorithms are being tested to detect abnormal patterns, trigger alarm systems so that local conservationists with portable internet-linked devices can be deployed on the scene. For example, when an elephant stops moving for a given period of time (usually 5-hours plus — as elephants typically remain stationary to rest and/or to sleep for intervals > 4 hours), an alert (SMS or email) can be sent to rangers to check on the animal immobility and to investigate if poaching has taken place and/or if the animal has become ill and requires veterinary assistance. (3) Proximity algorithms are being tested to monitor the spatial field of an elephant in relation to other key spatial markers (e.g., highways, fishing nets, hunting game reserves), thereby avoiding accidents and human confrontation. (4) Spatial data is being studied to identify the best corridors for elephant movements within a mosaic of towns, villages and agricultural lands that has become the reality of contemporary twenty-first century rural Africa. (5) Special attention is being directed to so-called “problem elephants,” herd members with a track record in raiding. (6) Geofencing is being tested so that if “a problematic elephant” approaches a farm or a village, its collar sends a text to wildlife rangers who can quickly determine the precise location of the animal, intervene in a timely manner, and divert the animal, thereby avoiding damage and potentially fatal confrontation between threatened specie and humans. Jon Hoekstra, Chief Scientist at World Wildlife Fund, notes in his Foreign Affairs 2014 article “true to their reputation for intelligence, elephants quickly learn to mind such virtual fences and keep clear of farms.” Finally, (7) collars can also be outfitted with sensors that can record bio-spatial data (skin temperature, heart rates, etc.) that enable researchers to explore relationships between spatial movement and the physiological state of the animal.
Real-time monitoring of elephants is constrained by cost, network coverage (when the elephants move out of coverage area, movement data is stored on their collar and feed onto the server when elephants roam back into range), small sample size, spatial sampling limited to Southern and East Africa and by the durability of the devices (the collars are given rough treatment by their animal hosts).
To increase public knowledge about digital technologies and their application for conservation, Space for Giants, (http://spaceforgiants.org), a UK-Kenyan conservation organization, placed tracking collars on four elephants in Laikipia, an area in northwest central Kenya, identified each elephants by name (Kimani, Carlos, Tyson and Evgeny) and by personality. Since January 2014 the spatial fields of the four elephants have been posted on twitter #ElephantsLive. Regular updates about the elephants are shared such as weekly roaming maps (See Map).
The initial tracking device costs US$5,000 but the World Wildlife Fund has participated in the development of low-cost GPS tacking devise that can be manufactured for US$300. Of course, such technology only works when locations are connected to the communications grid. To operate properly, digitally informed conservation is going to need a significant geographical expansion of telecommunications networks. The development of more affordable satellite uplinks and microcell towers and other breakthrough ways of delivering the Internet (e.g., by BRCKs (http://www.brck.com) — affordable devices that can be used to plug coverage holes in communities outside the grid), by drones and/or balloons sent into space are promising research frontiers that aim to deliver the Internet to rural Africa. With technology moving more into the spaces of rural Africa, networking nature can help preserve elephants in their natural habitats as well as help build a more sustainable future.