A new way to help save elephants

Three elephants in the wild (© Ana Verahrami/Elephant Listening Project)
Elephants in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in the Central African Republic in 2018 (© Ana Verahrami/Elephant Listening Project)

Every year poachers kill tens of thousands of elephants.

Despite China’s recent ban on ivory, which took effect December 31, 2017, elephant populations are still in danger from illegal hunting.

White box attached to the trunk of a tree in the forest (© Robert Koch/Elephant Listening Project)
A recorder affixed to a tree (© Robert Koch/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Forest elephants are especially vulnerable because the vast territory they cover and the thick foliage of the forest make them hard to track and protect.

To address this, the Elephant Listening Project of Cornell University is teaming up with Conservation Metrics, a technology startup in California, on a new approach: Listen for them with computers.

The Elephant Listening Project has been recording elephant sounds for decades, but analyzing the thousands of hours of raw audio captured on remote microphones is a slow, ponderous process.
Now the partnership will allow much faster analysis of the sounds captured on 50 recording devices across the 1,500-square-kilometer Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo, including elephant grunts and gunshots.

Much faster data

The Conservation Metrics team has developed a computer program that can separate the elephant sounds from the background noise, analyze the data and deliver results much faster than a human could.

Before this, it could take up to three months to retrieve sound cards and listen to and analyze the sounds captured on a single recording unit. Now, thanks to the startup’s artificial intelligence listening program, the job can be done in as few as 22 days. And the time it takes is only getting shorter.

Two men working with equipment on ground in forest at night (© Elephant Listening Project)
Wildlife Conservation Society researchers Frelcia Bambi and Phael Malonga set up a recording unit in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo. (© Elephant Listening Project)

“What the Elephant Listening Project is doing in terms of working with collaborators on these sites in Africa is really impressive, but the logistics are really hard,” Matthew McKown, CEO of Conservation Metrics, told the Daily Mail.

The collaboration will “speed things up, so we can show the people who manage the national park that we can provide information that will make a difference,” said Peter Wrege, director of the Elephant Listening Project.

Helping the elephants

The Elephant Listening Project isn’t just to collect scientific data. By tracking herds, the scientists can alert park rangers when the elephants are heading toward logging or farming areas, where the pachyderms risk a greater danger of harm.

One large and two small elephants at watering hole (© Ana Verahrami/Elephant Listening Project)
Wildlife trafficking, including of elephants, is the fourth largest transnational crime in the world. (© Ana Verahrami/Elephant Listening Project)

Park rangers can also do a better job of tracking and arresting poachers if they know the vicinity where shots were recently fired.

The use of acoustics alone “isn’t going to stop the poaching,” said Wrege, but “it offers maybe the only way we can get information regularly enough. It’s daunting, but it’s worth it, and it can be done. We just have to keep at it.”