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Technology and Conservation: Elephants counted from Space

  • IASbaba
  • January 22, 2021
  • 0
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SCIENCE & TECH / ENVIRONMENT

Topic: General Studies 3:

  • Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.
  • Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation 

Technology and Conservation: Elephants counted from Space

Context: Scientists are using very high-resolution satellite imagery to count and detect wildlife species, including African elephants.

A team of researchers from the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and Machine Learning Research Group detected elephants in South Africa from space using Artificial Intelligence with an accuracy that they have compared to human detection capabilities.

So, how did scientists track the elephants?

  • Earlier Methodology relied on manned aircrafts: Before researchers developed the new technique, one of the most common survey methods to keep a check on elephant populations in savannah environments involved aerial counts undertaken from manned aircraft.
  • Limitations of earlier method: However, this method does not deliver accurate results since observers on aircraft are prone to get exhausted, are sometimes hindered by poor visibility and may even succumb to bias. Further, aerial surveys are costly and logistically challenging.
  • Satellites Imagery Utilized: To test the new method, researchers chose the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, which has a high concentration of elephants. Researchers used the highest resolution satellite imagery currently available, called Worldview3.
  • Leveraging Artificial Intelligence Technology: At first, the satellite images appear to be of grey blobs in a forest of green splotches – but, on closer inspection, those blobs are revealed as elephants wandering through the trees. And all the laborious elephant counting is done via machine learning – a computer algorithm trained to identify elephants in a variety of backdrops.

Significance of using Satellite & AI Technology in counting Elephants

  • Accurate Count improves Conservation: In order to conserve the species, it is important for scientists to track elephant populations. This is because inaccurate counts can lead to misallocation of conservation resources, which are already limited and have resulted in misunderstanding population trends.
  • Helps arrest Declining Population: The population of African elephants has plummeted over the last century due to poaching, retaliatory killing from crop-raiding and habitat fragmentation. The scientists say better counting & monitoring could be used in anti-poaching work.
  • Useful in International borders: This approach of using satellites and AI could vastly improve the monitoring of threatened elephant populations in habitats that span international borders, where it can be difficult to obtain permission for aircraft surveys.
  • Cost effective: Scientists used satellite imagery that required no ground presence to monitor the elephants. The breakthrough could allow up to 5,000 sq km of elephant habitat to be surveyed on a single cloud-free day. 
  • Suited in Pandemic Situation: Also since these images are captured from space, there is no need for anyone on the ground, which is particularly helpful during these times of coronavirus

Did You Know?

  • But, this is not the first study of its kind to initiate tracking of elephants using satellites. In 2002, Smithsonian scientists started using geographic information systems (GIS) technology to understand how they could conserve Asian elephants. 
  • At the time, scientists launched the first satellite-tracking project on Asian elephants in Myanmar.

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