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How Cell Towers Could Save Forest Elephants

Modern technology can give scientists a better picture of what’s actually happening deep in the rain forest.

Elephants are probably not the first animal you think of when picturing the rainforest—they’re generally seen roaming the savannahs of Africa, like the one in the picture here, or traipsing across the grasslands of Southeast Asia. But there is a subset of elephants that live in the rainforests of Central Africa, and they’re in trouble. At least 1 million of these animals lived in the rainforest at one time; today, there are just 100,000.

The Elephant Listening Project, an initiative that records elephant vocal exchanges in an attempt to figure out what they’re doing, is engaged in the tricky work of eavesdropping on these animals without encroaching upon their remote habitats.

Peter Wrege, director of the Elephant Listening Project—a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—explains part of the problem in a post on the O’Reilly website:

Forest elephants spend most of their lives walking a network of paths through the forest, finding food and perhaps engaging in social interactions about which we know nothing. ELP is trying to pair video camera traps with acoustic recording units to piece together what is happening—but a network of acoustic and video sensors produces a lot of data and we don’t have an efficient way to get it out of the forest.

Cell phone towers can help in some instances, but getting data from the recorders in the forest to the cell towers—and then to Cornell’s computers—isn’t easy. Another problem: marking elephants from a safe distance. Tranquilizing them and adding tracking collars isn’t an option; the mortality rate is too high. When the elephants come to a clearing, the ELP can use thermal imaging. But this isn’t a permanent solution. Wrege writes:

Never before have we been able to see so clearly what before we could mostly only hear –-and now it’s possible to put together the sounds with the relevant behavioral interactions. But the characteristics we use to identify individuals during the day (rips in the ear, shape of tail hairs) aren’t visible with the thermal imaging.

Wrege also suggests that crowdsourcing of elephant sounds by nearby residents could also be useful, but the locals would first need to understand the sounds that they’re hearing—perhaps with help from a cell phone app.

None of this will directly keep the elephants from being killed, but the hope is that understanding these elephant noises (and any nearby gunshots) will help officials to track down poachers. Whether that happens efficiently enough to save the elephants will depend on how quickly the ELP can find solutions to its technological quandaries.