Later From Austin: A Fitbit to Save Elephants

A last minute glitch prevented the live streaming of our SXSW Eco panel, "A Fitbit to Save the Elephants." There will be video at a later date and we will post that.

Follow the conversation via our ElephantCount Twitter handle.   

Too Big to Fail: Oceans and Elephants

For lovers of the ocean, day two of SXSW Eco was like Christmas in October.

One of the most renowned scientists and ocean explorers, Dr. Sylvia Earle, used her time as the final keynote of the day as a sort of rallying cry for the oceans.

Dr. Sylvia Earle

Dr. Sylvia Earle

To most here in Austin, she left us startled at what is happening currently to the oceans. And she would know. Dr. Earle has logged more than 7,000 hours underwater earning her the nickname, “Her Deepness.”

“The ocean needs us,” said Dr. Earle. “We have a planet that is in trouble. We have an ocean in trouble and we cannot think that the ocean is too big to fail.”

But, Dr. Earle was quick to express an optimistic future. A future that, if we act now, we can save the oceans.

“The decisions we make in the next 10 years will be the most important one we make in the next 10,000 years. We have a chance to see the world with new eyes. We have a chance to get it right. The army of kids coming along are a cause for hope," said Dr. Earle.

These principles aren't new or something that hasn't been expressed before. 

Like Dr. Earle’s passion for the oceans, our love for elephants is exactly why we’re in Africa trying to meticulous count every elephant. As she says, we cannot solve problems if we don’t know we have them. The stark reality is that as we continue in our census, we are realizing the problem is much bigger than what we had initially realized.

We have choices. Elephants do not. A beautiful and remarkably bright species is under threat and diminishing before our eyes. So as Dr. Earle said in her closing statement and a great challenge for all of us, “it’s time we ask ourselves, how can I personally  use my power to make a world a better place for all of us.” 

Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure to Address Climate Change

Day one at SXSW Eco was all about infrastructure.

The conference’s first speaker and opening keynote from Dr. Robert Bullard made this point expressly clear in his address on wealth inequality and climate change.

Dr. Bullard, also known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” argued that the poorest people in the U.S. have the most degraded environments. He uses the southern U.S. as his case study for this point.


Since 1980, the South has had more billion-dollar climate-related disasters than any region of the country combined. Now, this region is undoubtedly geographically vulnerable, but its inability to adequately create a sustainable infrastructure that will protect itself from natural disasters has made it exceptionally vulnerable.

The South’s poverty coupled with the amount of man-made and natural disasters has created the perfect storm illustrating that even today in the U.S., where you live affects your chances of living a healthy life. 

We next heard Carbon War Room’s Ann Davlin and Jigar Shah speak on “Creating Climate Wealth.” Both panelists made an effort to implore the audience to think infrastructure rather than the newest coolest when thinking of climate-centered businesses.

“We all want to believe that tech can save the world. But technology doesn't save the world," said Shah. “Infrastructure matters, we need to be in the infrastructure business because Airbnb or Uber are not systematically reducing emissions.”

Davlin and Shah pointed to our rising energy costs as one example of industry with poor infrastructure. Shah noted that the average American family pays $4,000 more for energy than they did in 1999 while incomes have failed to increase significantly.

Even in the final two sessions, “Farming to Feed 9 Billion” and “Collateral Positives,” infrastructure or systems was the focus. Without a sustainable farming, food insecurity will increase. In “Collateral Positives,” the final keynote of the day, Boeing presented what an efficient biofuel system could deliver.

In imagining the experience at SXSW Eco, infrastructure was not something that came to mind. Clean tech, new apps solving big problems, or even new social devices were things expected to be focused on. But day one’s sessions truly showcased that in solving a problem, we must first and continue to address the infrastructure surrounding it, because without it, the solution won’t be sustainable for the future. 

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.

From Counting to Tracking: A 'Fitbit' for Elephants

We were thrilled this week to be among the first panels announced for the 2014 SXSW Eco Conference. Our panel is called called: A Fitbit to Save the Elephants and will focus on how new technology, data streams and big-data analysis can  inform efforts to manage and conserve elephants and other important wildlife populations. 

While the Great Elephant Census is relying on aerial surveys to create an accurate count of elephants, the team is also using tracking technology to learn more about the habits of elephant populations.

Dr. Mike Chase and a team member work to attach a tracking collar to an elephant. 

Dr. Mike Chase and a team member work to attach a tracking collar to an elephant. 

Current tracking technology involves heavy, expensive collars that require the elephants to be sedated so they can be attached.

The same technological improvements that are making phones smaller, tougher and more powerful, hold promise for better gadgets to track elephants. Also, new sensors and wireless connections could lower the cost and improve the amount of information that researchers can gather about elephants. The same kinds of technology that people are using to track and understand their fitness can be evolved to help illuminate the lives of elephant populations. 

From left, Frank Pope and Ian Douglas-Hamilton of Save The Elephants, an Stuart Graham of Vulcan Inc. were among the experts that gathered in Seattle recently to discuss wildlife tracking technology. 

From left, Frank Pope and Ian Douglas-Hamilton of Save The Elephants, an Stuart Graham of Vulcan Inc. were among the experts that gathered in Seattle recently to discuss wildlife tracking technology. 

We recently gathered a group of elephant researchers, wildlife experts and technologists in Seattle to share ideas and develop new thinking about how to track elephants and other animals. 

As part of the Census, we will be looking for opportunities develop new solutions and test some of these ideas. In October, we'll be sharing some of what we learn at the SXSW Eco Conference. 

We hope that you get a chance to join us in Austin, Texas, to hear new technology and data can fundamentally change our approach to conservation and catalyze efforts to conserve wildlife.