Elephant census taken from space

In South Africa, an elephant census – counting the number of elephants – is being conducted by satellite imaging. 

This innovative, cutting-edge technology means that scientists can use the satellite images to count African elephants from space. 

The images are from an Earth-Observation satellite orbiting the planet 600 kilometres (372 miles) above the ground. This could enable scientists to survey up to 5,000 square kilometres of elephant habitat each day – on days without cloud cover.

On board the satellite, computer technology counts the elephants via machine learning – a computer algorithm that identifies elephants in their own habitat. “We just present examples to the algorithm and tell it ‘This is an elephant, this is not an elephant’ and by doing this, we can train the machine to recognise small details that we wouldn’t be able to pick up with the naked eye,” said Dr. Olga Isupova, from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

The scientists first surveyed South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park.

The National Park “has a high density of elephants,” University of Oxford conservation scientist, Dr. Isla Duporge said. “And it has areas of thickets and open savannah, so it’s a great place to test our approach.” She said that conservation organisations are already interested in using the satellite technology to replace surveys using aircraft.

To use the satellite technology, conservationists will pay for access to them and the images they capture. This approach could improve the monitoring of threatened elephant populations in habitats that span international borders, where it can be difficult to obtain permission for aircraft surveys. The scientists say that satellite technology could also be used to reduce or prevent elephant poaching, and the poaching of other animals.

Another advantage of the satellite technology is that there does not need to be anyone on the ground.

The scientists say that the elephant census, and in future for the census of other species, using satellite technology from space is quicker, safer, and more accurate than on-the-ground counting or counting animals from a low-flying plane.

Location of photographs: Kenya

Photographer: Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls: SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM

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