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Can technology rescue the forest elephant? Yes, with your help.

Three Practical Challenges: Help the Elephant Listening Project Save What They Can’t See

Forest Elephant

Because these elephants spend most of their time in the remote darkness of the forest, collecting data on their behaviors is difficult.

Most people are aware of Asian elephants and the African elephants of the savannahs. A third variant on the largest land mammal on earth walks the rainforests of Central Africa, mostly out of sight and out of mind. The forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is so poorly known that efforts at designing effective conservation strategies are greatly hampered, yet these are the only elephants left on earth that enjoy a mostly free and unconstrained existence. They make their home in closed-canopy forests where most of the standard tools for studying animals are ineffective. We desperately need to find ways to leverage the incredible advances in engineering and software that define human activities today to help this amazing animal survive.

In recent decades, human threats to forest elephants have escalated at rates that, if unchecked, will push them to extinction before our generation has passed. From an estimated 1 million animals when the Phoenicians first ventured down the west coast of the African continent, they are now reduced to 100,000; last year alone about 12,000 were slaughtered for their ivory.

Graph of Elephant Population Decline

Forest Elephant Populations Down by 90 Percent
Numbers before the 1950s are only estimates, but decline began to accelerate in the late 1800s with the opening of the Belgian Congo for ivory extraction. The World Wars dampened demand, but this resurged in the late 1950s, and with it the killing. The world ban on ivory sales in 1989 only briefly decreased poaching pressure and now demand in Asia is so high that ivory sells for $1500/lb. Poaching intensity has rocketed.

But how does one study an animal that we only directly observe when it comes to a forest clearing a few times each year? Additional challenges are posed because we can’t catch these three-ton beasts, and it’s dangerous to be on the ground with them.

The Elephant Listening Project (ELP), at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been tackling these problems through sound, eavesdropping on the communication system of forest elephants to track some basic aspects of their biology. To save the elephants, we need a quantum advance in our understanding of their biology, which requires both tracking individuals and moving data efficiently out of the forest to analysis hubs or the cloud. In addition, we also need to find ways to excite and engage young people living in elephant countries, perhaps by getting them directly involved with the biodiversity of their forests.

Challenge #1: Move “big data” out of remote, dark forests to a communications network.

Peter Wrege installing recorder in tree.

The author installing an acoustic recorder 35 feet up in a tree.

Forest elephants spend most of their lives walking a network of paths through the forest, finding food and perhaps engaging in social interactions about which we know nothing. ELP is trying to pair video camera traps with acoustic recording units to piece together what is happening – but a network of acoustic and video sensors produces a lot of data and we don’t have an efficient way to get it out of the forest.

The value of these kinds of data is very high (and the bonus is delightful video sequences like this), but both power and access within the forest are limited. In a few places, cell towers might provide the link, but transmitting data from low-power recorders stuck in the dimness of a tropical forest to the cell towers requires ingenuity. Even if we manage to get the data to the cell towers, we still face the difficulty of moving gigabytes of sound (and video) to the number-crunching high-performance computers of the Cornell Lab. Internet bandwidth and connection consistency are nearly always poor where we work in Central Africa. A few hundred megabytes of data can take hours to upload to something like GoogleDrive or DropBox. Clearly this is something faced across the information-hungry world these days—how do others solve this problem?

Challenge #2: Mark individual elephants from a safe distance

Thermal image of male forest elephant.

Thermal image of a male forest elephant.

Individually marking forest elephants for tracking in the closed forest or for observing them at night in clearings poses another challenge. The mortality rate from tranquilize darting is too high in this species to make standard telemetry collars acceptable. With rough, crinkly hides covered in dust and dunked in rivers, and a trunk that can reach anywhere but the butt – what would a tracking tag look like even if you had someone gutsy enough to run up and slap it on an elephant’s rear end?

Something with the functionality of a satellite tag would be a holy grail, but even short-term marking would be fantastic if visible at night. A few times each year these elephants come to clearings in the forest to socialize and to find mates, but the real action seems to happen after dark. ELP recently probed the mysteries of the night at one such clearing, using a thermal imaging camera. In just a few weeks, we raised important questions about how these sites actually function in the life stories of forest elephants. Never before have we been able to see so clearly what before we could mostly only hear – and now it’s possible to put together the sounds with the relevant behavioral interactions. But the characteristics we use to identify individuals during the day (rips in the ear, shape of tail hairs) aren’t visible with the thermal imaging. If we had some way to temporarily and remotely mark individuals before dark, with a material or tag that would be visible in infrared, so much more could be learned. Such a marker would need to last for 12 hours or so. Paintball with thermally active paint, anyone?

Challenge #3: Develop fun mobile apps that African children can use to identify elephant calls and the other beasts of their forests—citizen science = future conservationists

cellphone use in Africa 2005

Cellphone use in Africa continues to increase at an exponential rate. Smartphones offer new opportunities to engage local communities in conservation efforts.
By floorvan (http://www.flickr.com/photos/f7oor/879616887/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation in Africa is still mostly pushed from the outside, from the relatively rich world. To be successful, sustainable conservation will only happen when local folks buy into the need and care about it. But how do we bring our excitement and concern about wild places to populations where education is still very rudimentary and economic conditions make thinking about and acting on conservation issues a luxury? A key might be through cellphone technology, because even in the poorest places I’ve visited, cell phones are everywhere. Could we engage young people’s interest and pride of knowledge with mobile apps that help them identify the rich sounds coming from their forests? A game or competition with rewards of free cell time? And could their animal identifications be vetted by crowdsourcing?

We’d love to have your help with the technology we’re hoping to put in place. Please contact us with your ideas and to learn how you can get involved with the Elephant Listening Project. The more we learn about the forest elephants, the more we can do to protect them.

Forest Elephant

Rare sighting of a forest elephant.

Peter Wrege is the Director of the Elephant Listening Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To learn more about the project, check out the website at elephantlisteningproject.org.

  • bob

    Maybe I missed how this is going to help the elephants from getting shot by poachers?

    • ediefr

      The ELP is trying to understand the behaviors of forest elephants while they’re in the forest so they can better protect them. We’ve introduced the ELP folks to the people at the ZSL Digital Eyes and Ears for Wildlife Protection project (which just won a Google Global Impact Award — http://oreil.ly/18O8CQa), with the hope that they can work together to bring the innovative remote video/sound cameras the ZSL has developed to Central Africa. The cameras/recorders pick up gunshots and transmit the GPS coordinates of that activity immediately, so rangers can move in on poachers while they’re active. The Eyes and Ears Wildlife Protection project has the potential to cut down poaching significantly, and may be shared worldwide to protect many different poached species.

    • Jukka Aakula

      I was also hopeful to see something really helping these elephants to survive.

  • Joseph F. Chabot

    Peter Wrege is the man to see about technology.

  • Helen Simpson
  • Helen Simpson