Years ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen backed a project called the Great Elephant Census that highlighted a crisis for Africa’s elephant population, brought about primarily by illegal poaching.
Allen passed away last year at the age of 65, but the software-based successor to that project, known as EarthRanger, lives on. What’s more, EarthRanger has adapted to dramatic changes — not only in the challenges facing Africa’s endangered elephants, but also in the way old and new technologies are being used to address those challenges.
“I think the most important thing that’s happened … is the maturity of those of us who are technologists in this space, in what we’re now truly calling conservation technology,” said Ted Schmitt, principal business development manager for conservation technology at Vulcan Inc., Allen’s holding company.
Schmitt and his partners in the EarthRanger effort highlighted technology’s role in saving the elephants today during a news briefing at Vulcan’s Seattle headquarters. Along the way, they delivered a piece of good news from the Mara Elephant Project, which works with Kenyan authorities to protect elephants in the greater Mara ecosystem, part of East Africa’s Serengeti plains.
Back in 2012, before the Great Elephant Census began, conservationists documented 96 elephant deaths from poaching in the Mara during that year. But since then, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Mara Elephant Project’s 57 rangers have arrested 354 poachers. The death count related to poaching has declined to just four elephants in 2018.
“That’s a direct result of monitoring, boots on the ground and the presence, combined with changes in global markets for ivory,” said Jake Wall, director of research and conservation at the Mara Elephant Project. “It’s a multifaceted approach.”
EarthRanger plays a critical role in that approach. “I call it the backbone of our ability to coordinate,” said Wesley Gold, law enforcement manager for the Grumeti Fund, which works to protect wildlife in a Tanzanian stretch of the Serengeti.
The EarthRanger system pulls together data from rangers in the field, from elephants that have been fitted with tracking collars and from other sources. All those readings are mapped out on a continuously updated dashboard display.
“It’s the most important tool,” Gold said. “I’m sitting here in Seattle, and I’m logging on and checking what’s going on back home. If I see anomalies, I can get on the phone and say, ‘Sort that out.’ ”
Alina Peter, the operations room coordinator at the Grumeti Fund, agreed that EarthRanger is a “huge game changer.”
“First, it’s how easy it is to actually access the real-time data — something we wouldn’t have known if we didn’t employ technology in what we do. Second, it’s learning about all these movements, how things are happening,” she said.
Thanks to the advances made against poaching, the job of saving the elephants is becoming less like stopping a drug deal and more like resolving a neighborhood dispute. Different challenges are coming to the fore: for example, more intensive land use that’s taking away the elephants’ traditional habitats and exacerbating conflicts between elephant populations and human communities.
Using EarthRanger, the Grumeti Fund’s team has tracked elephants traveling as much as 100 miles in a single day, zigzagging between protected lands and farms where cultivated crops make for a tasty target.
“They’re very clever animals, but they’re also very destructive. … If you are a subsistence farmer, and an elephant comes into your farm and destroys your ability to feed your family for a season, how on earth will you ever see the positive side to having elephants?” Gold said.
To address those challenges, EarthRanger is programmed to flash amber or red alerts when elephants leave their protected areas and stray outside a geolocation-based “virtual fence.” Those alerts help teams out in the field execute strategies to head off human-vs.-elephant conflicts.
Several of those strategies involve remote-controlled drones. For years, conservationists have used commercial drones equipped with night-vision thermal cameras and other sensors to monitor elephants as well as poachers.
Now those drones are being used as well to keep track of the livestock on farms situated close to the elephants’ protected areas.
Even artificial intelligence comes into play: Image processing software can use computer vision and machine learning to tally up the number of animals in photos captured by the drones.
“That hugely decreases the cost of doing a survey,” Vulcan’s Schmitt said. “That’s critical if you want to do them frequently. … One of the things Paul said to us when we did the Great Elephant Census was, ‘This is crazy, having a bunch of people fly over Africa in a Cessna and stare out the windows. We should be doing AI, we should be taking pictures.’ Now we’re starting to realize that.”
The drones can be used for purposes other than surveillance. Researchers have already discovered that drones can be used to drive off elephants, because to an elephant’s ears, the buzzing machines sound like pesky bees (which the pachyderms take pains to avoid).
Crop-dusting drones can also be used to spray the edges of cornfields with a solution containing a chili-based irritant. Elephants hate getting a snootful of chili, and so they avoid the crops.
“In India, they’ve developed an actual organic pesticide that uses a turmeric and chili base, so we might even be able to kill two birds with one stone in terms of providing a pesticide that is not harmful to the environment, but also keeps elephants out of those farms,” said Marc Goss, CEO of the Mara Elephant Project.
Some of the strategies for keeping elephants at bay go way back. “It’s like the David-and-Goliath slings that Hannibal used in his armies to keep elephants moving forward,” Goss said. “Now we’re using those with chili balls.”
That led Schmitt to marvel at how even 2,200-year-old ideas can find their way into 21st-century conservation technology.
“Who knew Hannibal had something still to contribute to innovation, right?” he said. “But that’s how we started with EarthRanger. It’s how we try to focus on things. … Start with a problem, and then figure out what technology you can bring to that.”
Update for 8:20 a.m. PT Oct. 3: We’ve updated this report to make clear that the Mara Elephant Project is using commercial drones in its monitoring efforts. Vulcan’s in-house drone program is still in development.