News + Opinions

What's Next for Surveying and Monitoring Wildlife?

Conservation
Feb 22 2021
How we're using science, technology, and machine learning to protect wildlife

In 2013, a dedicated group of conservationists took to the skies with the goal of counting Africa's savannah elephants.

Poaching and other factors such as human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss were killing the iconic species at an alarming rate, but exact population numbers were unknown.

Without a baseline count of savannah elephants, it was impossible to know how many had been lost or where to focus efforts to protect them.

From the seats of small, single-engine planes flying over the African terrain, Vulcan's Great Elephant Census was born. The aerial survey counted savannah elephants across 18 counties, providing critical benchmark data on their population numbers.

The results of that pivotal survey set off a chain of events that helped define better wildlife protection measures across the continent and, ultimately, throughout the world.

Since then, Vulcan has remained committed to the surveying and monitoring of wildlife. We believe accurate and timely census data on animal populations provides the critical baseline that policy makers and other organizations need to take action and implement long-term conservation plans.

Using state-of-the-art practices in science, technology and machine learning, we continue to work with partners around the globe to monitor and survey wildlife. These efforts have resulted in sweeping policy changes, innovation in conservation technology and broader awareness of the threats wildlife face. And we're just getting started.

Below, explore our work in surveying and monitoring, learn more about where we're headed and see how the Great Elephant Census was just the beginning of our fight to ensure every animal counts.

 

Great Elephant Census  |  EarthRanger  |  Great Elephant Census Forest Initiative

Great Elephant Census

In 2013, 100 elephants were dying every day - about one every 15 minutes

Paul G. Allen knew that providing accurate and reliable data about elephant population numbers was critical to forming long-term conservation and management plans.

Together with 90 scientists, numerous NGO partners and wildlife department staff across 18 countries, Vulcan began the Great Elephant Census (GEC). 

Census crews conducted the aerial survey of Africa's savannah elephants - the first in 40 years - and covered nearly 463,000 kilometers over 18 countries.

Results and Impact

  • The alarming results revealed there were only 350,000 African savannah elephants remaining, a 30 percent decline over a seven-year period, primarily due to poaching. 

  • There were, however, beacons of hope. In Uganda, the elephant population had rebuilt from only 700-800 to 5,000 and Angola who agreed to join the census and have their elephants surveyed for the first time. 

  • Delegates at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a motion to call on countries to close their domestic ivory trades. At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) the member nations agreed by consensus that legal ivory markets must be closed. 

  • In Tanzania, government officials increased enforcement and arrested the "Ivory Queen" and "Shetani", two infamous ivory traffickers.

  • In China and Hong Kong, the two largest ivory consumers in the world, officials agreed to shut down the trade of all ivory. 
A Great Elephant Census plane conducts transect surveys of Africa's savannah elephants.
Together, we can and must save Africa's elephants.
Paul G. Allen commenting on the results of the Great Elephant Census in 2016

Great Elephant Census results

30%

Amount savannah elephant populations declined between 2007 and 2014

8%

Rate of decline in 2016, primarily due to poaching

352,271

Elephants counted across 18 countries

EarthRanger

With the GEC results showing African savannah elephant populations dwindling at a rapid rate, there was a clear need for immediate action.  

Conservation organizations like African parks had expertly trained rangers, canine units, and vast amounts of data around poaching and human-wildlife incidents collected from the field. But there was no way to collect and visualize the data in order to make real-time operational and enforcement decisions. 

Old binders sat on dusty shelves, filled to the brim with notes. Data gathered via digital radios, animal collars and vehicle tracking lived on separate devices. Rangers struggled to keep eyes on multiple screens in operations rooms or track problems in the field fast enough to make a difference.  

"The first thing people from the parks said was, even with the amount of data they have, they were feeling overwhelmed by it and couldn't use it effectively," said Ted Schmitt, Principal Program Officer, Conservation Initiatives at Vulcan.

Enter EarthRanger. The one-stop data hub - created by Vulcan in collaboration with partners across Africa - integrated the data that parks were collecting through remote sensors and provided real-time visualization of activity that indicated a potential threat to wildlife. 

Park managers and officials now have access to a comprehensive picture of where their rangers and assets are, where human activity is present and where wildlife is encroaching on surrounding communities, filling a huge data gap that had existed for decades. 

Results and Impact

  • Today, more than 130 protected areas and conservation sites are using or have committed to using EarthRanger to monitor and protect their wildlife. 

  • Big Life Foundation in Kenya uses EarthRanger to help promote wildlife's safe passage between preserves. Ol Pejeta Conservancy, home to 135 of the world's critically endangered black rhinos and the last two remaining female northern white rhinos, is using the platform to better monitor and protect the iconic species.  

  • At the Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania, EarthRanger is helping to monitor park boundaries and ranger activity, and has contributed to the decline of poaching activity throughout the reserve. And at Liwonde National Park in Malawi, EarthRanger is helping keep the peace between elephants and local communities protecting their crops. 

  • EarthRanger has also been used in surprising ways, most recently to help detect and monitor locusts swarms in East Africa. It is also being used to prevent and respond to deforestation in Cambodia and other areas in Southeast Asia.

  • The EarthRanger team continues to innovate the technology behind the platform to make it scaleable and more accessible and has ventured into areas beyond Africa, including Cambodia, Mongolia, Belize, Croatia and New Jersey.
Alina Peter, Anti-Poaching Operations Room Coordinator, uses EarthRanger as part of Grumeti Fund's security efforts. Photo credit: Grumeti Fund

Technology is becoming an increasingly vital part of wildlife conservation.

Dr. Cleo Graf, Southern African Wildlife College
Great Elephant Census: Forest Initiative

Gabon is home to 50% of Africa's forest elephant population

With Africa's savannah elephants counted and their populations monitored under EarthRanger's watch, Vulcan turned its attention to a smaller counterpart in the western part of the continent.

Forest elephants, a subspecies of African elephants that inhabit the dense rainforests of west and central Africa, are much more elusive than savanna elephants and little is known about their population numbers. 

These smaller elephants – rarely exceeding eight feet tall – are scarcely seen and move under the thick cover of rainforest canopies. Traditional aerial surveys and other methods of visual identification wouldn’t work to gather data around their populations. 

Vulcan set its sights on Gabon, which is thought to harbor more than 50 percent of the remaining forest elephant population, arguably making it the most important country for forest elephant conservation. Outside of the national parks, however, the population status is largely unknown there.  

Partnering with the World Conservation Society and Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux du Gabon, we worked with scientists in the field who collected elephant dung and developed a new DNA methodology to count elephants in Gabon.  

Using state of the art field survey techniques, the Great Elephant Census -Forest Initiative (GEC-FI) will produce distribution maps, population, density and poaching intensity estimates of forest elephants, as well as other large forest mammals in Gabon.  

Using  DNA-based Spatial Capture-Recapture (SCR), researchers can identify individual forest elephants and estimate total numbers by genotyping DNA from the sampled dung collected in the field.  Gabon has developed its own in-house lab for processing the DNA and this will be the first time the method has been used at such a large scale for counting elephants.   

Results and Impact

  • Data has been collected from 19 locations, systematically distributed across Gabon’s extensive forests that cover more than 80 percent of its national territory.

  • Once collated, validated and evaluated the data will represent the single most comprehensive field assessment of the country’s forest elephants in 30 years.  
Wildlife Conservation Society researchers collect forest elephant dung in Gabon.

By providing timely census data, we can fill critical gaps and enable prioritization of conservation resources.

TED SCHMITT, Principal Program Officer, Conservation Initiatives at Vulcan

Other surveying and monitoring work

It’s imperative to have accurate data in order to convey the magnitude of conservation issues. At Vulcan, we remain committed to innovating in science, technology and machine learning to provide critical data around accurate animal counts.  

Take a look at some of the other ways we’re counting and tracking wildlife populations and ecosystems to help preserve these species for generations to come.