Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade: Technology to count elephants from space offers anti-poaching hope

‘Accurate monitoring is essential if we’re to save the species’, researcher says

Vincent Wood
Wednesday 10 February 2021 10:57 GMT
An elephant sits in water in the Okavango Delta near the Nxaraga village in the outskirt of Maun, Botswana
An elephant sits in water in the Okavango Delta near the Nxaraga village in the outskirt of Maun, Botswana (AFP via Getty Images)

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Scientists have been able to identify Elephants from space for the first time - technology that could be used to empower efforts to challenge wildlife poaching.

Researchers used commercial earth observation satellites Worldview 3 and 4 to capture high resolution images of African elephants moving through grasslands and forests.

And combined with computer deep learning, an automated system was able to pick out animals with the same level of accuracy as a human would.

Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade

We are working with conservation charities Space for Giants and Freeland to protect wildlife at risk from poachers due to the conservation funding crisis caused by Covid-19. Help is desperately needed to support wildlife rangers, local communities and law enforcement personnel to prevent wildlife crime. Donate to help Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade HERE 

The measure could be vital in the battle against poachers who profit over the destruction of the planet’s biodiversity - a cause The Independent has championed as part of its Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign.

The project, developed by researchers at Oxford University and the University of Bath, could allow vast landmasses to be scanned and assessed in a matter of minutes - outpacing human observers who would typically carry out such work from low-flying planes.

(The Independent )

Poaching as well as damage to habitats has caused the population of African elephants to nosedive in the past century, with roughly 415,000 savannah elephants believed to still be left in the wild.

“Accurate monitoring is essential if we’re to save the species,” said Dr Olga Isupova, who worked on the project. “We need to know where the animals are and how many there are.”

Satellite monitoring also ensures that habitats will not be disturbed by vehicles used to track animals, while making it possible to observe animal groups as they cross borders that may limit the movements of their human observers.

“This type of work has been done before with whales, but of course the ocean is all blue, so counting is a lot less challenging,” said Dr Isupova. “As you can imagine, a heterogeneous landscape makes it much hard to identify animals.”

The Independent’s Stop The Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign is working with anti-poaching NGO Freeland  and African wildlife charity Space for Giants to tackle the conservation crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Raising more than £300,000 for the cause in the past nine months, the campaign has also brought together leading conservation organisations to issue a joint statement at the G20 in Riyadh last December.

It told the world leaders they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to capitalise on public demand to invest in nature to protect people and the planet.  

The group told the G20 leaders in a statement: “Covid-19 has been a wake-up call to everyone on this planet. Now is the time to value and invest in nature by developing sustainable nature-based economic stimulus packages that embrace a One Health approach and address long-term planetary health, food security, poverty alleviation, climate change, and  biodiversity  loss and work towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Among the other organisations that signed the declaration were the World Wildlife Fund, the Zoological Society of London, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Paradise Foundation, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the Jane Goodall Institute.

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