On the Trail of a Missing Elephant with Latest Surveillance Tech (Samburu National Reserve, Kenya)


New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie 

Date Published

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“Informers heard shots last night. And we lost Annabel’s signal near there.” Frank Pope of Save the Elephants is refuelling a four-seater Cessna on a dusty airstrip in the savannah of northern Kenya. Annabel the elephant has a collar that transmits her GPS location hourly over the cellphone network. Unusually, she has wandered out of range, in an area frequented by poachers. We’re heading out to look for her.

“Do you get airsick? I warn you, I’ll be merciless.” As Pope banks steeply over the thorn trees, I have to remind myself that I’m about to see the future of wildlife protection.

Elephants at several African reserves wear GPS trackers that alert rangers when an animal stops moving or drops off the grid. In the past, says Pope, “we had to write down the last known GPS locations.” They would then go out to look for them in this huge landscape. But today, Pope is using an app made by Vulcan, a firm based in Seattle, Washington, and run by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Pope only has to glance at his tablet to see where other elephants with longer range transmitters are. Annabel could be with them.

In August, the app will form the heart of conservation’s first “domain awareness system”. The military use tech like this to track troops and ground vehicles in real time. Now parks across Africa are interested in using it.

Rangers on patrol

Initially, the system will include details about ranger patrols and reports from informers. Data from infrared cameras and vibration sensors will then be added to monitor poacher activity via software tuned to recognise humans. Later, the plan is to hook the system up to other sensors like gunshot detectors, or satellites watching for changes in vegetation. It will also include data about the movement of other animals, such as cattle, zebra and hyena.

The system will also serve local communities. For example, it could text a farmer when a crop-raiding animal is approaching. The new system also gives a much clearer picture of an individual animal’s habits. With current tech, one bull elephant’s movements appear as a tangle of tracks, but the new app clearly shows him sheltering near a ranger post by day, and dashing out to raid farms at night. It is also being used to decide routes for wildlife tunnels under a new railway line in Kenya’s Tsavo Park.

It isn’t just for elephants. “Anything that can carry a transmitter can be tracked,” says George Wittemyer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who works with Save the Elephants. Domain awareness systems could help keep cattle and buffalo apart, warn of whales in shipping lanes and give fresh insights into animal behaviour.

As our plane wheels dizzyingly over the savannah, we finally pick up Annabel’s signal. One of Pope’s team, who knows 500 elephants by sight, spots her and confirms she is alive and well. But he also sees the remains of two other elephants discarded by poachers. “With the old system we couldn’t have done that in three hours,” says Pope as we land. They can only hope that the new system will help keep wanderers like Annabel safe.