Why Use Satellites to Track Elephants

Radio collar around the neck of a Bornean Pygmy elephant (<i>Elephas maximus ... / ©: WWF / A. Christy WILLIAMS
Radio collar around the neck of a Bornean Pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis).
© WWF / A. Christy WILLIAMS
So why does WWF need to go to all the trouble of capturing elephants and placing satellite collars on them? Isn’t there an easier way to study them?
Actually, tracking elephants by satellite collar is the best way we’ve found so far to monitor the movements of elusive animals that spend most of their time in dense forests.

The idea for collaring Borneo’s elephants came out of the personal and professional interests of two technology enthusiasts at WWF.

Making the best use of current technologies
Dr. Christy Williams, coordinator of WWF’s Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS), never goes anywhere without a digital camera, laptop and GPS unit in tow. Whenever he hears about a new technology reaching the market, he ponders how he can best adapt it to his research in the field.

And his high-tech interest is matched by Raymond Alfred, the project coordinator for AREAS in Sabah, , where the pygmy elephants live. Raymond is working on his PhD in GIS mapping and, in his role at WWF in the past four years, has used that expertise to map all of the pygmy elephants’ habitat - data no one had before.

Christy and Raymond conceived the project to satellite-collar Borneo’s elephants to find out which forests are most crucial to the elephants and how they use their habitat, much of which is outside protected areas and could be subject to logging and conversion to commercial plantations.

“Our field team has tracked elephants on foot for weeks at a time to gather data, but it’s very difficult and labor-intensive,” Raymond says. “We are still in the process of figuring out how to get optimum outputs from the use of this technology.”

Raymond and Christy worked with a South African company that adapted technology which uses satellite tracking systems to let transportation companies monitor the whereabouts of their shipments. These systems help the U.S. Army track truck convoys in and seafood companies locate fishing fleets in the middle of the ocean. The company’s equipment has been used to track elephants on African savannahs and forests before, but never in the deep jungles of Asia.

At least once a day, a satellite positioned over Asia tries to retrieve data on each collared pygmy elephant’s location. The satellite can only upload data when there’s a clear path between them and the collars, though, so if the elephants are under heavy tree cover - as they often are in the jungle - no data is retrieved.

“We’re attempting to get data every day from each elephant, but we’ll consider the project successful if we get three readings a week from each,” Christy explains. “Elephants like to walk in open areas if there is no disturbance, so they often come out onto logging roads in the evenings when there’s no traffic. We figure we’ll get most of our readings that way since the roads have a clear view of the sky - and the satellite - above.”

In a few years, he’s confident that WWF will be able to use thermal imaging to track elephants in the forest or some other technology that is not available for civilian use yet. But until then, he’ll keep testing the limits of the technology already available.

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