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Can we count elephants from space?

Conservationists have begun using an exciting new technology that utilizes satellite imagery to count elephants from space, a method that British experts believe will aid in protecting threatened populations in Africa.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Bath combined machine learning with satellite technology to create a tool that can independently count elephants.

Images captured by a satellite orbiting 600 kilometers (approximately 370 miles) above the Earth can survey up to 5,000 square kilometers (nearly 2,000 square miles) of land in a single pass, all within a few minutes.

Scientists trained an algorithm to recognize adult elephants from a dataset of 1,000 elephants in the park, discovering that it could also identify calves. They hope that these conservation technologies will be urgently adopted to protect the world’s biodiversity.

“The population of African elephants has plummeted over the last century due to poaching, retaliatory killing from crop-raiding, and habitat fragmentation,” Oxford said in a statement.

Implications for conservation

The technology could make population surveys of elephants much more efficient and cost effective, instead of relying on aerial surveys by small aircraft, vast areas could be scanned and elephant populations counted.

This technology could have significant long term implications for elephant conservation. Tracking how land use is changing over time, whether from human development or as a result of a changing climate, we could be able to see how these changes are influencing elephant populations.

The data could also be used to see how elephants themselves are changing the landscape. Elephants are significant ecosystem engineers, and can help spread tree seedlings over vast distances. Some experts suggest that this behavior could help mitigate against climate change, by moving seedlings into new habitats.

Importance of aerial surveys

Although using satellite imagery could be a more efficient way of tracking elephant populations compared to aerial surveys, we cannot underestimate the benefits of using manned aircraft.

Aerial surveys are not only used in tracking and counting elephant populations but are also extremely effective in identifying specific issues whether it is an injured elephant or potential poachers.

Human observers can provide detailed and nuanced observations that AI might miss, such as subtle behavioral cues or signs of distress in elephants. Experienced pilots can also assess the health and condition of the animals more accurately than an algorithm analyzing images.

Additionally, aerial survey teams can coordinate closely with ground teams, providing direct communication and guidance. This synergy enhances the effectiveness of conservation efforts, allowing for immediate ground response to any threats or observations made from the air.

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Tsavo Trust flys 55 hours of patrols every month, vital to protect and monitor the wildlife of Tsavo Conservation Area.

Exciting new technologies

There are a number of exciting new technologies that undoubtedly will make conservation easier and more efficient. Including a rhino collar that uses AI to measure the rhino’s behaviour and sends out distress signals when something unusual happens. These new technologies need to be used in conjunction with dedicated and knowledgeable humans beings to give conservation of wildlife the best chances.

That’s why, here at Tsavo Trust, we aim to get the most out of all the tools in our arsenal, from new innovative technologies, such as Earth Ranger, to training local community members to become anti-poaching rangers. In this way, we can best ensure that our critically important elephant populations, and the surrounding communities, flourish.

If you would like to support Tsavo Trust’s efforts by providing crucial tracking technology, manning aircraft and providing for the local community then follow this link.

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