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January 23, 2019

Experts fit jumbos with GPS to beat poachers

After the devastating elephant losses across Africa, some players have adopted a new technology to help experts understand elephant’s lives and their needs.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) technology provides near-instantaneous observation of the exact location of an animal within seconds of it being recorded by a collar fitted around the neck.

Data are transmitted via satellite or the local cell phone network. Behind the scenes, a software monitors the elephant movement and summarises the information.

Ian Douglas-Hamilton, the head of local conservation NGO Save The Elephants, said technology is now a sure way of ensuring that elephants are secured and also studying their behaviour.

“We follow elephants in all kinds of weather and terrain, regardless of political or property boundaries, revealing their intimate lives and problems. Remote tracking generates information on an unprecedented scale never before available to researchers,” he said.

Information generated from GPS is shared with several security agencies and elephants experts. Douglas adds that a lot of care is taken to ensure that the information does not get into the hands of poachers.

GPS tracking has an advantage over conventional tracking, in that it allows animals to be continuously monitored in places where intensive study cannot be done, gathering frequent data and generating detailed maps of elephant movements.

Knowledge of fine-scale movements, obtained from GPS tracking, has enabled researchers to examine the routes used by elephants in moving from one part of their range to another.

This information is used by managers in developing land-use plans to establish protected corridors and minimise conflict with surrounding communities.

Douglas said elephant tracking has already shown that there are certain crucial corridors that need to be left open so that elephants can reach their feeding grounds.

“We can identify precisely the location of several of these. The vital Ol Donyiro corridor between Samburu and Laikipia is an example. Keeping them open should help to avoid conflict with people and reduce habitat destruction from confined elephants,” he said.

Douglas said even though poaching has greatly gone done, more still needs to be done as elephants risk being extinct.

“We estimate that 100,000 elephants were lost between 2010 and 2012. West Africa’s elephants are all but gone, and many populations in Central Africa have been wiped out in the last few years. If this continues, Africa’s elephants could be gone from the wild within a generation,” he warns.

Last year, 164 elephants and 35 rhinos were poached, representing a drop of about 47 per cent and 40.7 per cent respectively from 2013.

Kenya lost 302 elephants and 59 rhinos in 2013. In 2012, 384 elephants and 30 rhinos were killed by poachers while in 2007, 47 elephants and five rhinos were killed.

Cases of cattle rustling common in pastoral communities of Samburu, Turkana, Pokot, Trans- Nzoia, Marakwet, Isiolo and Marsabit regions has also drastically gone down as youth who normally take part have been taken through training at the Kenya Wildlife Service to help secure parks.

Some have also secured jobs within group ranches.

Douglas said Save The Elephants is using GPS to provide real time movements of elephants in several other countries in Africa.

“Within the northern Kenya, we have collared 42 elephants as of today and we are in the process of collaring more. In Democratic Republic of Congo, we have collared 12,14 in Mara and 16 in South Africa, bringing the number of collared elephants in Africa to over 80,” he said, adding that both males and females are equally collared.

He said elephants are no respecter of boundaries as they move from one country to the other regardless of weather and terrain, of political or property boundaries.

“Elephants in Mali moves to Bukina Faso while those in CAR navigate through Congo Brazzaville and Cameroon and Gabon. Those in DRC move through Uganda while those in South Africa move through Mozambique and Zimbabwe,” he said.

Douglas says data collected helps activists stand up for elephants’ right to space, as well as a host of other species and habitats.

“Ultimately, it is human beings who will determine wildlife survival or extinction,” he said of diminishing space for wildlife.

Douglas said with technology, elephants population could once again grow and attract more visitors from around the world.

He spoke at Samburu national reserve when Google Street View launched its maps.

The images allows internet users to take a virtual safari in the conservancy.

STE senior field operation officer David Daballen said GPS technology has proven to be one of the most effective ways to secure elephants.

“We use to use an STE animal tracking programme, supported by Safaricom, which enabled each tagged elephant to send text messages every hour of its exact position. This helped deepen both the bull and cow/calf social studies, and identifies crucial corridors that elephants use to travel between Samburu and Laikipia,” he said, adding that the information was vital for wildlife authorities and stakeholders to ensure plans to secure the future for the elephants and their habitats.

The system combines the GPS with GSM mobile phone communication technology. The positioning technology uses satellites to determine the exact location of the elephants.

Daballen said the technology had challenges as it had to rely on network which might not be reliable in some remote areas.

“We can now be in a position to track the elephants using the satellite even when they are under water. This has been the game changer in securing our heritage and helping to change peoples’ attitude to elephants.”

He said that GPS technology is also being used to monitor orphaned elephants following poaching.

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