Data / Infographics

Great Elephant Census Over 50 Percent Complete, Flies Over 136,000 km in 11 Countries

Great Elephant Census Over 50 Percent Complete, Flies Over 136,000 km in 11 Countries

Accompanied by the hum of the engine and the click of the camera, Great Elephant Census surveyors flew methodical grids over some of Africa's most beautiful landscapes, and counted every elephant in sight. 

The Great Elephant Census Talks Tech in Austin

We’ve been to Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana and now part of The Great Elephant Census team is in Austin, Texas, to lead a panel at SXSW Eco. We’re here to talk about “A Fitbit to Save the Elephants" and how big data and technology can help Africa's wild elephants as well as other species.

Data-driven decisions are beginning to transform many people's lives. From the moment they wake up to the time they fall asleep, humans are increasingly relying on data from smartphones and wearables like the Fitbit. This data is being displayed in easy-to-understand ways that can lead to better-informed decisions about health, travel, clothing choices and a host of other areas.

For animals, the technology that is gathering all this new data via wearables and smartphones could be used to help humans better understand elephants and other wildlife and inform new ways to conserve them. For example, the same tools people use to avoid traffic might be able to help elephants avoid poachers. Also, the same technology that people use to track their daily steps could be employed to understand where elephants go, what they eat and how habitat loss is impacting those habits. These tools could change approaches to conservation and help catalyze efforts to save wildlife being threatened with extinction.

That’s why Vulcan’s Dr. Kathleen Gobush, Senior Wildlife Manager, and Ted Schmitt, Conservation Technology Adviser, have traveled to Austin this week. They will be presenting current technologies and data tools being used on The Great Elephant Census with the hopes of inspiring others to think about wildlife conservation in another way.

We have also invited some of the world’s most renowned elephant and tech experts to discuss the potential impact of these new technologies. Dr. George Wittemyer of Save the Elephants, The Smithsonian’s Dr. Peter Leimgruber and Microsoft’s Lucas Joppa will share their insights on potential new technologies and data techniques that would revolutionize the fight to save elephants.

Stay tuned throughout the week as we'll be posting more news and notes from SXSW Eco.

Refreshing Our Map

We are in the middle of a busy time for the Great Elephant Census, with teams across the continent flying and counting. And some of the first results are being added to the project's database.

Click the map to see a larger version. 

Click the map to see a larger version. 

Now is a good time to update our map. When we launched this site and the project, we had a map from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group that highlighted the "known" and "possible" ranges of elephants. 

We've built onto that initial map and overlaid the areas where survey teams have completed their parts of the Census as well as areas that are scheduled to be part of the project.

As you can see, there are still large areas where elephants are known or believed to be living that aren't part of the census. By focusing on the areas that we have selected, we will hit our goal of counting 90% of the continents savanna elephants. That 90% will allow the creation of an accurate estimate of the overall elephant populations.

Other areas are home to African forest elephants, which cannot be effectively counted using aerial surveys. We are exploring other ways to count and track elephants as part of the Census that could allow them to be counted in the future.

We expect to keep updating this map as the project moves ahead, so check out the Map page of the site and follow here as the survey teams complete the phases.  

Dramatic New Estimates of Elephant Killing Highlight the Need for New Data

New research from Save The Elephants, “Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants,” published today in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, quantifies the impact of poaching on African elephants across the continent as even worse than previously thought.

Study estimates a much more dramatic decline in African elephant numbers. 

Lead author George Wittemyer and the research team estimate that more than 100,000 elephants were poached between 2010-2012 on the basis of an extrapolation using fine-scale demographic data of an intensely monitored population in Kenya, carcass surveys for CITES MIKE sites and a derived rate of killing applied to International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) regional population estimates. Illegal killing rates averaged 6.8% per year continent wide (exceeding expected natural population increase by 2-3% per year), with regional trends being the worst in Central Africa (with an estimated 63.7% decline in forest elephants between 2002 to 2012 there.) 

Overall, 75% of the population sites examined have been in net decline since 2009. Intriguingly, the analysis suggests that the rate of killing in 2012, though still unsustainably high, declined after a peak in 2011. The authors explain that it is critical to identify the drivers of this change -- a change in the right direction for elephants -- and they point to the possible influence of ivory auction restrictions in China in 2011.

The analytic approach used to estimate the actual number of killed elephants relies on a total African elephant population estimate that is likely inaccurate because it is based on outdated data for many sites.

The Great Elephant Census aims to provide the most up-to-date, scientifically reliable estimates for 90% of Africa’s savanna elephant populations across 18 countries, as well as identify poaching activity, other human encroachment and habitat degradation.

We are still early in the process of surveying elephant populations to know whether new data will show larger or smaller than expected numbers. It will create the most accurate base to apply these new killing-rate estimates and derive a total mortality figure for African elephants. But we know that better data is needed to inform current and future efforts to conserve these animals. 

Developing New Technology to Enhance Accuracy

How do we know our elephant counts are accurate? The answer is a proven scientific process, rigorous training, and careful application of technology applied consistently across all survey teams.

Survey teams for the Great Elephant Census came together before any surveys were made to discuss standards and training, and to identify ways to improve survey methods using technology.

One bit of technology the surveyors desired was a better way to keep track of flight altitude and speed. Fly too high or too fast and they are likely to under count the elephants; fly too low or too slow and there is a risk of over counting. They sought a device that would make it easier track flight speed and ensure altitude was right. 

To address this need, engineers at Vulcan Inc., Paul G. Allen's company, developed and built a simple, inexpensive survey data logger to help pilots stay on track and to record the data scientists need to calculate the count post-survey. 

The data logger is built from mostly off-the-shelf parts, including a consumer tablet that serves as the screen and input method. An app written by Vulcan engineers supplies the brain. Custom mounting brackets created using a 3-D printer attach the tablet to the logging unit, making the whole package able to tolerate the rough operating environment of wildlife surveys.

Six data loggers have been delivered to survey teams already, with several more on the way. Vulcan engineers and Howard Frederick, one of the survey scientists, recently met in Seattle to discuss upgrades to the data logger based on feedback from the field. Howard shared his excitement about data logger as an important tool for improving the accuracy of the Census. The entire team is dedicated to helping produce the best possible Census data. 

Word Play: Analyzing Coverage of Elephants and Sharks

Which gets an issues -- or a species -- more "ink?" A week of dramatic and heavily marketed television or a sports team?

The Discovery Channel's Shark Week has done a great deal to raise awareness of sharks -- as well as spawning an interesting new movie franchise. As many people have seen this week, #sharkweek has also provided a platform -- particularly across social media -- for other organizations and brands to tag along.  

Upwell has done a great job in tying the reality television binge-fest of Shark Week into campaigns that inform people about the plight of sharks. 

While they are vastly different animals, elephants and sharks occupy similar positions as keystone species. They are both iconic animals that have a complex relationship with humans. And they are both under extreme threat, particularly by poachers. 

They have also received roughly the same amount of "ink" over the last 150 years, at least in The New York Times. NYTimes.com recently released a research tool called Chronicle that allows users to analyze the use of words in the paper. I recently compared the number of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." 

Comparing the total number of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." Source: NYTimes.com Chronicle

While "sharks" spiked higher at various points, "elephants" consistently get more mentions in the Times. Digging deeper into the spike in "sharks" around 1980 showed many instances of television listing with "sharks." Though I couldn't read the entire articles, this was not long after "Jaws" (1975) and there were a number of movies and documentaries that came out around that time which were clearly inspired by that iconic film. 

Looking at the percentage of articles that mention "sharks" and "elephants" shows a similar result:

Comparing the percentage of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." Source: NYTimes.com Chronicle

In both cases, there has been an uptick in the mentions of "sharks" since 1990, and since then the mentions of sharks outpace the mentions of elephants. The Discovery Channel's first Shark Week happened in 1988, so there is a correlation between the increased mentions and the existence of Shark Week. 

But digging in to the underlying article lists, shows that many of the "sharks" instances refer to the San Jose Sharks hockey team which was created in 1991

So perhaps getting a professional sports team named after elephants could help them grab more "ink" in the future. The Evansville Elephants sounds pretty good.