High-tech monitoring of elephants

Wandering herd

You may have heard of the wandering elephants of China that drew international attention to their journey across Yunnan province. If not, make sure you take a glance at their long, overland journey, which led authorities to marshall extraordinary resources to monitor the herd and keep it away from residential areas.

In June, China’s famous herd stopped for a brief rest after a 15-month journey far out of their natural habitat, but followed their exceptional journey, which captivated people worldwide. Scientists are still unable to figure out what made the elephants leave their habitat and start their wandering. Some have hypothesized that the elephants are on the move due to their habitat shrinking and their population growing.

According to Chinese media, the Yunnan forest fire brigade, a team of eight people were tracking the elephants 24 hours a day on the ground and in the air by drones. They are utilizing a series of drone and infrared cameras to track the elephants in real-time in order to help warn authorities when the herd gets too close to populated areas. This is important because even though wandering wildlife is fascinating, the elephants may pose serious challenges to people whose crops, houses, and livelihoods are destroyed by the wildlife. The concept is known as human-wildlife conflict. According to state media, the elephants were first detected to leave their natural habitat in March 2020, and their destructive presence has already caused at least 6.8m yuan ($1.07m) in damage.

Monitoring of the past

Monitoring of wildlife, including elephants, is not a new phenomenon. However, it is becoming more and more important since the above-described events may not be unique in the future and perhaps humans will experience the negative effects of destroying natural ecosystems. It has been a great accomplishment of the recent past that scientists have been able to develop seismic monitoring by listening to the vocalized rumbles of the footsteps of elephants using microphones and seismometers. These sound waves may be recorded even several hundred meters away and used for estimating the position of elephants. Seismic monitoring provides an alternative when microphones and camera traps are affected by bad weather or certain natural obstacles.

High-tech monitoring and real-life app tracking

The monitoring of wildlife is drastically changing. On 12 June at 7:26 pm, Li Zhongyun received a message after he finished work in Yunnan province “A herd of wild elephants is hanging around Chengzi-I community in Mengwang village, Menghai county. Please inform villagers who are working outside to be careful.” Since the herd was 168 milea away from his home he let out a sigh of relief. Li, who is a forest ranger and elephant observer, has to patrol the border between China and Laos.

Xishuangbanna is an autonomous prefecture in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, bordering Myanmar and Laos and has a population of more than 1.3 million. Furthermore, it provides protection to 756 types of wild animals and thousands of rare plants. The area is also home to 300 wild Asian elephants, which is unique in China being the largest population.

In the past few years, the reserve has significantly changed in nature. There is now more fore coverage and fewer herbs and lianas, which serve as food for the elephants. This has led to elephants feeding on farmland much more frequently.

Human-wildlife conflict can take many forms, as we previously mentioned, and elephants can cause damage on top of consuming crops. To reduce the encounters between humans and wild animals, local authorities have developed a mobile application that allows users – mostly forest rangers – to identify, locate, and track wild elephants. Forest rangers, hence, can quickly have access to information about nearby elephants and they can start the necessary preparations.

The monitoring and early warning system, as well as application was independently developed by authorities in November, 2019. “A total of 471 infrared cameras and 142 intelligent broadcasting systems have been installed in protected areas in Jinghong city and Mengla county, along with two sets of video surveillance systems at the Wild Elephant Valley scenic spot” said Tao Qing, deputy director of the administrative and protection bureau at Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve. “The system has greatly improved the capacity and efficiency of the local response to human-elephant conflicts.” According to Tao, the system actually provides valuable help to decision-makers, because the reliable, timely, accurate and complete information gained through the system can be an effective scientific basis for better protection and management measures. “Tao said the unmanned aerial vehicle monitoring and early warning platform now has more than 200,000 users and more than 41,200 followers on the social media app WeChat” according to China Daily.

The application has a map that allows users to directly view the gathering place of elephants, the danger zones and plan a good travel route. Field activists may also use the application since they can choose appropriate places to visit. The best thing about the application that the information feedback is real-time and very accurate. Users can also report if they encounter an elephant herd. The application’s user interface is very simple and allows them to analyze data efficiently. The system is capable of recording monitoring information and remotely receiving and transmitting real-time information on elephants in the region. It is also able to store the images and pictures captured by drone surveillance and high-resolution camera devices real-time.

The above-mentioned wandering herd, for example, was escorted by police who cleared the roads to facilitate their passage and by feeding the elephants were able to prevent the entry of the elephants to densely populated areas.

Effective management

Thanks to the effective management practices of the reserve, the number of elephants has considerably grew. The total number of Asian elephants has risen from about 170 to 300 since the 1980s. “In recent years, 11 nature reserves with a total area of 509,800 hectares have been set up in areas of Yunnan with significant elephant populations. Villages in 10 areas have been relocated from the reserves and more than 600 hectares of habitat has been restored” according to state media. There is also more public awareness, which can further be supported by platforms providing real-life information obtained via these sensitive systems. It simply becomes an interesting topic to talk about, to follow and to spread. But of course, local laws and regulations are key points. The state and provincial laws must be effectively enforced and special attention should be devoted to monitoring the elephants. Hence, the application is not only technologically significant, but also a wonderful achievement regarding monitoring methodology and its effectiveness.

“Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve has collaboration agreements with three provinces in northern Laos, forming five joint protection areas covering a total of nearly 51 square miles to ensure the safety of cross-border elephant habitats” according to China Daily. While the wild elephant population is up, the habitat area has decreased from 2,084 sq km in 1976 to less than 500 sq km in recent years. The wandering elephants may open our eyes to the existing wildlife out there and the danger they are facing due to their habitat loss. The authorities have preferred to manage their journey rather than anaesthesizing and taking them back to the reserve. Maybe there are things for us to learn about why they are on the move. And humans need to learn how to adjust to other creatures as well. The application and monitoring system may serve extremely useful in the protection both humans and elephants.

Andrea Nyilas is a Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Consultant and a Sustainability and Environmental journalist. She holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Central European University, in addition to a Master of Arts degree in Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest. She is particularly interested in circular economy, natural resource management, and waste reduction.