Technology permeates most aspects of modern human society, and in recent years, this has come to include methods that specifically address our surrounding ecosystems as well. Several technologies have been developed of late that have both direct and indirect applications in conservation. These range from the monitoring of animal populations using radio collars or unmanned airplanes, to websites that allow important information about human activities within an ecosystem to be readily accessible. And all of these technologies have proven useful tools for the protection of elephants among other species.
Global Positioning System (GPS) collars have been widely used as a conservation tool for over 50 years. The collars allow scientists to track animal movements in order to determine migration routes and habitat use. Animals are immobilized, fitted with collars, and the data from their movements is collected at intermittent periods. Then, using this information, a picture of their locations over time can be generated to show a map of the animal’s home range. This technology is useful in conservation, especially for animals inhabiting dense forested areas where human observation is limited. In more recent years however, real-time monitoring of animal movements has become possible with technological advances. Instead of collecting stored data about animal positions every week, the data can be streamed continuously for analysis. This allows an analyst to visualize the position or trajectory of a collared animal in a geographical information system (GIS) within minutes of its occurrence1. This technology has the potential to better protect species that are either under immediate risk of hunting or are likely to frequently interact with humans as a threat.
|The home range of a white-tailed deer based on GPS information7|
Particularly in African elephant conservation, real-time monitoring with GPS collars has enabled researchers to monitor the safety of individual elephants and the communities that surround elephant habitat. There are currently over 90 elephants across Africa being tracked2. Rangers can use the acquired knowledge of elephant movements within a particular ecosystem to best design their patrol routes in order to protect against poachers. Additionally, the technology can also recognize immobility of a collared elephant. This means that if the individual does not move out of a critical radius an alert can be made to wildlife managers about the possibility of an injured elephant, likely due to poaching1. Rangers can then be deployed to the site of immobility in an attempt to arrest any present poachers and potentially save the injured elephant.
|A bull elephant wearing a GPS collar in Samburu, Kenya|
This tracking technology can also be used to prevent human-elephant conflict. This is accomplished through the analysis of geographic intersections, or geofencing. A geofence is a virtual fence line erected around human settlements that can send alerts to wildlife managers if a collared elephant approaches within a certain distance of the line1. This allows communities to be notified if potential crop-raiding elephants are close. Farmers and rangers can then attempt to deter elephants from eating crops, and drive them away from their village, before the elephant’s damage to a farmers’ livelihood incurs the anger of the farmer. Over time elephants may also learn to avoid these areas where they are harassed and to travel through safer corridors3.
|A text message alert from an elephant crossing a geofence2|
Drone technology, historically used in the military, has also recently been adapted for use in conservation. One NGO, Conservation Drones, is working to promote the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles in surveying wildlife, mapping ecosystems, and supporting the enforcement of protected areas. The conservation drones are small motorized planes with navigation systems and high definition cameras. The major advantage of this technology is that it can reduce the cost and time associated with traditional ground surveys, especially in dense forest where human access is difficult. Several of these drones have already been used to conduct a census of the orangutans living in a national park in Sumatra, and to monitor seabird-nesting activities along the coast of Australia. They have also been used to protect elephants in Nepal, and several countries in Africa, by expanding surveillance of illegal activity such as poaching4.
Although drones seem to be a beneficial, low-cost conservation tool, a lot of skepticism exists about their use as surveillance technology. The success of conservation projects depends greatly on the support of the surrounding communities, and using drones could alienate the local people. If they feel as though they are being spied upon, then this technology could make relationships with local communities worse, undermining their desire to cooperate in conservation projects5. There is also a fear of the technology falling into the opponents’ hands. If poachers are able to hack into the drone technology, they could find target animals even easier. Security of this technology is therefore extremely important to maintain in order for them to be considered an effective surveillance tool. The public stigma associated with drones may have to change for them to prove successful in conservation efforts.
|Photographs of orangutan nests in Sumatra taken by a drone8|
Information is widely available in the current digital age and more platforms for publically available information are being created with conservation in mind. One of these global databases is a website called WildLeaks, which provides a secure platform for users to share anonymous information regarding wildlife and forest crime. The organization is composed of professionals with backgrounds in law enforcement, security, and investigations. They analyze and evaluate the information received, then decide to launch an investigation or share the information with law enforcement and the media. The goal of the organization is to encourage the sharing of information without the fear of losing anonymity, so that enforcement agencies can more successfully break down the coordinated criminals of wildlife trafficking6. WildLeaks has even recently received three separated tips related to the ivory trade in East Africa allowing them to start investigations into the ivory trafficking that is endangering elephants in this area3.
To further promote awareness through technology, other organizations have embraced a public platform where they can provide transparency about conservation issues. One of these groups is Eyes on the Forest, which has partnered with Google Earth and multiple NGOs in Indonesia to create maps of the deforestation occurring on the island of Sumatra. This island is one of the only places where Asian elephants, tigers, and orangutans co-exist, so it is a critically important habitat to preserve. Eyes on the Forest has created these maps for the public to clearly see where the locations of wildlife ranges, national parks, and legal logging or palm oil plantations occur. They hope this transparency will both allow the community to identify where illegal activities may be occurring, and to place greater public pressure on companies driving deforestation3.
|A map of Sumatra showing forest cover in 1985 (light green) compared to 2009 (dark green) created by Eyes on the Forest 9|
The combination of technology at work on the ground, in the sky, and via online platforms, is an exciting new hope for the future of many species. It is allowing for conservationists to take alternate and possibly more effective measures to protect individuals at immediate risk, and take-down larger scale networks of environmental threats. Both the African and the Asian elephant are among these species. Through the use of these technologies we can improve our knowledge of their habitat use, implement better techniques to protect them from poaching, and develop management practices that reduce conflict between humans and these magnificent animals.
1 Wall, J., Wittemeyer, G., Klinkenberg, B., & Douglas-Hamilton, I. 2014. Novel opportunities for wildlife conservation and research with real-time monitoring. Ecological Applications, 24, 593-601.