If you were an elephant in Africa today, you would face many dangers. Loss of your natural habitat due to climate change, deforestation as a result of illegal logging, and the poisoning of rivers from illegal gold mining.
You would struggle with humans for space and, in certain parts of the continent, have to hide during the day to evade poachers wanting to kill you for your tusks. Even though international trading in ivory has been made illegal since 1990, thousands of elephants are estimated to be killed each year as a result of the demand for ivory.
In the 1800s, there may have been as many as 26 million elephants in Africa.
Today they are about 450,000 and they are listed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’.
The poaching crisis killed an estimated 100,000 elephants across Africa in just three years, between 2010 and 2012. It is estimated that elephants are declining at the rate of about eight per cent a year, whilst reproduction rates are at five to six per cent.
Diversity has also decreased. Scientists recently determined that tusks discovered in a 487-year-old Portuguese shipwreck in 2008 belonged to at least 17 different herds of forest elephants with distinct genes, of which all but four of those genes are now extinct
Save the Elephants (STE) is a research and conservation organization based in Nairobi, with its main research station situated in Samburu National Reserve, northern Kenya. It also has a second research station in Tsavo, the home of its globally-renowned Elephants and Bees Project, where STE’s Human Elephant Coexistence team is investigating ways for people to live in harmony with elephants in an increasingly crowded landscape.
Save the Elephants was founded in 1993 by Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Iain, a zoologist, is one of the world’s leading authorities in the study of elephants. He was the first to collar and track elephants in the late 60s, he put experts together in the 1970s to carry out a Pan-African elephant survey, and he contributed to the establishment of the international ivory trade ban.
STE aims to “secure a future for elephants and sustain the beauty and ecological integrity of the places they live in.“
Fighting for Land
African elephants are the largest living land mammals and they play an important role in balancing the ecosystem. As they move through the countryside trampling forests and grasslands, they create space for smaller species to thrive. The seeds dispersed in their dung give birth to new vegetation. The waterholes they create during dry periods are also used by other animals.
Commercial agriculture is a natural evolution of a growing population. However, competition for space means increased chances of conflict between wildlife and man as human settlements infringe upon the natural habitats and migratory paths of elephants.
To prevent elephants from crop-raiding and destroying infrastructure, farmers frighten them off with loud noises or flashlights. They may not always get there in time. Worse, confrontations can lead to people and elephants being injured or killed. Loss of sustenance, revenue and lives heighten the hostility and resentment of local populations towards elephants, often resulting in retaliation. Elephants who have been hurt may become aggressive.
Can Technology Help Humans and Elephants to Coexist?
Save the Elephants (STE) has used technology to its advantage in tracking elephants. The organisation plays an integral role in creating awareness and finding solutions for elephants to coexist with humans.
STE’s founder, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, first pioneered radio tracking in Africa in 1968. This was the first step in transforming the world’s understanding of elephant behaviour and movements. Data from the elephant’s radio collar used to be transmitted via VHF radio beacons. Today, the GPS location of an animal can be transmitted almost instantaneously via satellite or the local cell network. It has evolved into a real-time tracking system called ‘Earth Ranger’ that is today being used in over 100 protected areas across Africa and the world.
The web-based domain awareness system platform, in partnership with Vulcan, integrates the collected data which allows users to visualize and monitor elephant movements. It is customized to send alerts via SMS and e-mails when an elephant is nearing a restricted area, or when the animal is unnaturally immobile, signalling possible injuries or other problems like a poaching incident.
Avoiding and Managing Potential Conflicts
STE uses a Geofencing system to help reduce farmer-elephant conflict. A virtual fence line is programmed in GPS positions into the tracking collar of elephants which have a propensity to raid crops. When these elephants wander outside a predefined area or enter a local village, an SMS text message can be sent to staff and the farmer so immediate action can be taken to drive the elephant back into the reserve before any damage is done.
Combining Save the Elephants’ cutting-edge real-time tracking technology with co-ordinated counter patrols can also help to mitigate the number of clashes between the elephants and farmers protecting their crops. The crucial tracking data provides an intimate insight into elephant society and enables conservation organisations like STE to make great strides towards understanding elephants’ behaviour and improving strategies to better protect them.
STE also has a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) team which crunch the data and create maps from the information collected to help understand elephant movements. GIS allows the recording of individual elephants and the gathering of spatial data which tells us the population size and density. Data from GPS radio collars give even more precise information on the range of each group or family, help plot their movements and understand their preferences of habitat.
These maps give communities, road and rail developers and politicians the necessary information to make decisions and plan. For the safety and wellbeing of both parties, infrastructure and human settlements can be built away from the main pathways of elephants travelling between habitats. These migratory routes are known as elephant corridors. For existing problem areas, ecological corridors can be built to allow safe passage.
Further developments are in the pipeline. A census of the elephant population is often done through aerial surveys. Save the Elephants has recently trialled a new technology, in partnership with survey expert Dr Richard Lamprey, using an automated high-definition oblique camera system (OCC) which significantly improves the accuracy of aerial counts.
On the ground, human observers can identify individual from key characteristics such as ear patterns and tusk configuration. In Samburu, Save the Elephants researchers can identify more than 900 elephants by sight using this method. This allows experts to study their behaviour and relationships. Elephants have sophisticated family dynamics and their reputed long memory is well deserved. STE has been working with ‘WildMe’, who have developed machine learning algorithms to identify individual animals automatically. They are hoping to include elephants to their growing list of wildlife such as whale sharks, mantas and zebras.
The Human Touch
To be sustainable, technology needs to go hand in hand with education and building awareness.
Since 2001, Save the Elephant’s Elephant Scholarship Program, supported by donors, has mentored and shaped more than 200 motivated students, many of whom are already becoming young leaders in their communities
STE also works closely with local schools, helping teach students about the value of elephants and the eco-system they live in. These include classroom-based lessons and field trips to increase students’ knowledge of elephants, coach them on behavioural safety and teach them practical tips on how to co-exist with wildlife. The aim is to transform students with prejudices and negative attitudes towards elephants into future ambassadors by getting to know these intelligent animals.
To learn more about elephants or read about the research, projects and programs please visit Save The Elephants.
You can make a young Kenyan’s dreams come true by sponsoring an elephant scholar or support STE’s conservation work.