The Wired Wilderness – Google StreetView in Samburu


David Daballen, Head of Field Operations

Date Published

Google Earth has been working with Save the Elephants for the last ten years now. Our working relationship has been productive in many ways. In the last few years, with the support of the county government, there have been negotiations between Google and Save the Elephants to bring Google Street View to Samburu National Reserve. When these negotiations were going on, none of us could imagine what this would mean for the Reserve.

In February 2015, Google’s technical team arrived with the most up-to-date advanced technology, including a camera that could film in all directions at once. The Google team spent most of their time on the dirt roads of the Reserve, driving with this camera strapped to the top of their vehicle to capture nature’s beauty. A lot was filmed during the period they were here, including a radio collaring operation. The team also coordinated it so that they could capture some elephants on the skybox camera that passed over Samburu during their stay. We drove to Lewa to film Mountain Bull’s underpass corridor, as well as other interesting stories surrounding him. Finally, the team flew to Nairobi to film at Sheldrick’s Orphanage, before returning to California.

During the time Google was back in California, we were constantly in touch for editing purposes. As soon as a Samburu Street View launch date of September 15th was agreed upon, we began intensely preparing. Everything was in gear by the arrival of the morning of the 15th, at which time all of the STE vehicles, plus a few hired cars, drove to the airstrip to pick up various journalists and other media representatives. We divided the journalists into cars according to prior arrangements before leaving to go view game in the park.

After an hour of showing the press elephants and other game, we returned to camp so as to continue with the rest of the program. By the time we arrived, the rest of our guests had come, including representatives from the Samburu county government (led by the governor), national government representatives, and several others of our partners. Since we were behind schedule, everyone was quickly welcomed. Iain, Frank, and I gave a brief camp tour before everyone sat down, ready to listen to the prepared speeches.

Once both the local and the national government officials had given their speeches, everyone was keen for the Google Street View of Samburu Reserve to be officially launched. Sean, chief engineer of the Google team, had decorated the whole room with hugely high-tech machines. He and the rest of the Google team introduced themselves before giving several demos, familiarizing the audience with the concept of Street View. He ended with a showing of Samburu National Reserve on Street View. It was incredible to view our camp and several familiar elephant families right there on the Internet, available for worldwide view.

We hope that having Samburu Reserve on Street View will be an advertisement for tourists to visit this amazing place, bringing in revenue to stimulate the local economy. We also hope that the stories told about filmed elephant families like the Hardwoods will raise awareness across the entire globe, awakening viewers to the reality that these elephants are individuals, with lives of their own that deserve to be respected and cherished. The views of our camp can bring visitors to see the unique setting where we live with elephants on a day-to-day basis, working to study and protect them. Views of Mountain Bull’s underpass corridor allow us to share a story that we have cherished, and views of the orphanage can bring people to the reality that poaching not only results in a dead elephant, but also leaves behind orphans and fractured families who must cope with the loss of family members and try to survive in their absence. Taken together, we hope the Samburu Street View images will shine a hopeful light on the poaching situation, inspiring people to help the unmatchable African elephant and the ecosystem where it lives in whatever way they can.

We would like to extend our sincere appreciation to our Google partners for the many years we have worked together. The launching of Samburu Reserve on Street View means a lot for us at Save the Elephants. It came as a culmination of many successful projects with Google, most notably that of tracking our collared elephants via Google Earth. The tracking technology of Google has allowed us to learn an unprecedented amount about elephant movements. At the most basic level, it has allowed us to directly monitor and save collared individuals during periods of high poaching risk. It has also informed us as to the habitat use decisions elephants make under varying circumstances. We have been able to identify areas of high elephant concentration, and hence deploy more patrols to protect the elephants in those places, staying one step ahead of poachers. We have discovered historical elephant corridors, knowledge of which will assist us in avoiding human wildlife conflict through the creation of alternate routes for these animals. Google has therefore contributed in a large way to the conservation of the Northern Rangelands Trust African elephants, and for that we are immeasurably grateful.