Tweeting elephants - behind the scenes

Last week, for the very first time, four elephants joined Twitter to share their adventures via GPS collar. Find out how the data is collected behind the scenes.

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The Independent Online

Early last week, for the very first time, four of Space for Giants’ collared elephants joined Twitter to share their daily adventures via their GPS collars. We hoped that people would take an interest in learning about elephant behaviour and the daily challenges they face in their shrinking habitats.

We had no idea how large the interest would be. On behalf of Kimani, Tyson, Evgeny and Carlos – thanks for following! 

Read on to find out more about how the elephants’ GPS collars work and the purpose they serve - other than tweeting.

At the moment Space for Giants have six elephants fitted with GPS/GSM collars. We tag elephants that are vulnerable to poaching or regularly stray into populated areas, break fences and raid crops. By keeping an eye on these elephants, we can better understand their movement patterns and help keep them safe.

How does the monitoring work in practice?

The collars we use have two innovative characteristics. Firstly they are programmed to record hourly positions, which are sent to our server via mobile phone network. When elephants are in mobile phone coverage, we can receive data on their whereabouts in real time. When the elephants are out of coverage, movement data is stored on their collar and then dumped to our server when the elephant comes back into range.

Secondly, and crucially, the collars are programmed to send a tailor-made message when the elephant approaches a designated landscape feature (called a “geo-fence”). This could be a fence or a watering hole or meeting another elephant.

Last year, Space for Giants also developed a ground breaking mobile-phone based platform to help conserve and manage wild elephants in Kenya. It displays the movements of our collared elephants in real time, including the messages triggered by geo-fences, described above.  Secondly it also allows scouts on the ground to enter information manually, for example the location of a fence-break, or where an elephant carcass has been found. This creates a regular flow of real time and contextual information that can be translated into feeds onto twitter for each elephant.

Through this technology, we can now monitor the location of elephants and human-elephant conflict across a 10,000km2 area by just by looking at a screen on our mobile phone.  We hope that the data and information we collect from this new app will help conservationist decision-making across many landscapes in the future.

What are we sharing on Twitter

The tweets cover the four elephants’ most significant movements on a weekly basis – this could be Kimani peacefully ambling around Meru National Park, or Carlos straying too close to smallholder farms. The tweets also include particular personal traits we have picked up from following the elephants over a long period of time – people will soon find that elephants aren’t so different from us humans! Any movement data we share is at least 48 hours old - to keep the elephants safe from poachers.

We hope that people will develop a connection to the four elephants, learn about their behaviours and get a real sense of how incredibly intelligent and social they are.  This connection is crucially important, if we are to reduce the demand for ivory in the future. We therefore hope that our tweeting elephants will be seen all across Asia, where demand for ivory is at its highest.

Follow Tyson, Kimani, Evgeny and Carlos @spaceforgiants #ElephantsLive