In 1900, there were about 10 million elephants roaming the African continent. Today, there are estimates of anywhere between 410,000 to 650,000. A big part of the problem is that one knows how many exactly, and that knowledge gap is drastically slowing conservation efforts.

Illegal poaching of elephants has skyrocketed in recent years largely due to ivory demand in East Asia. Some 100,000 elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. The research stated that the elephant population is declining by about 2 to 3% a year.

Now, technologists and conservationists are banding together to do the most accurate African elephant count in history in order to fight poachers and address long-term elephant conservation. It’s called the Great Elephant Census, a project funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his investment company Vulcan Inc.

“It brings needed sophistication to the approaches for conserving African elephants,” said Dr. Kathleen Gobush, senior wildlife project developer of Vulcan. “It ups our game, and that’s needed because the poachers and criminal syndicates have upped the ante here.”

Elephant data

In August and September, 10 Cessnas flew over Africa. Four people sat in each one, looking out the windows, counting elephants. They took photos for confirmation, and used GPS technology to map the travel courses.

“Tough conservation decisions need to be made and having the best quality data will make sure those decisions are science-driven,” Gobush said.

The Great Elephant Census is a research collaboration with Vulcan Inc. and Elephants Without Borders. It was designed to provide accurate, up-to-date data about the number and distribution of elephants across 22 countries — 600,000 square miles — in Africa, and the organizations are looking to cover 80 to 90% of all the savannah elephant range. Some of the countries with the most elephants include Botswana, Tanzania, Angola, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.

It is the first pan-African survey of elephants since 1979, when Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, conducted the first survey that counted 1.3 million elephants on the continent. Follow ups a decade later showed that the population was poached down to about 600,000. It prompted an international ivory ban in 1989.

Elephants Without Borders is based in Botswana and run by Dr. Mike Chase, who helped conceptualize the Great Elephant Census. Chase has been researching the ecology of elephants for more than a decade.

Allen became involved when he partnered with Chase to determine how the counts could be best done to make significant impact on elephant conservation. He donated $7 million for the project, which started in February 2014.

“Data is critical to making decisions going forward, galvanizing political will or gaining momentum,” Gobush said.

For the census, certain areas are sampled — 3% to 6% of the total land — and then statistical analysis is used to come up with an overall population count. In the low-count areas, the team physically counts every elephant they see. They also count elephant carcasses. The census does not count forest elephants for this, as they are nearly impossible to see from the air, but the team is exploring how to track them in the future since they are among the most poached elephant populations.

The first year has been dedicated to counting the elephants, though it is taking a little longer than planned due to the rainy season and political issues, particularly in South Sudan, where the planes cannot easily fly. With the setbacks, the data gathering will wrap up in May 2015. For the year after that, the data will be analyzed and published.

The biggest issue is data security. At SXSW Eco, the panel from Vulcan pulled up a map of Austin, Texas. Layered on top were hundreds of tiny dots — elephants that were actually roaming the savannah. Even in a room of 100 journalists, conservationists, and environmentalists, though, they couldn’t be too careful. That data simply cannot get in the wrong hands. If poachers get ahold of it, it makes their job much easier and could lead to tragic consequences for elephants.

The data, some of which will be released as it is analyzed early next year, is submitted by the surveyors through a secure portal. Only certain people can see certain parts of the data, and it will stay that way, said Ted Schmitt, conservation technology advisor for Vulcan.

“It has been and will continue to be a fine balance between getting information out there to everyone who needs it, and that need for the safety of the animals — which is the reason we’re doing this in the first place,” Schmitt said.

Tech catalyzing conservation

In our fast-paced world, bringing in all sectors of society to tackle this issue is key. It can no longer only be conservationists wringing their hands trying to solve a crisis like illegal elephant poaching, Gobush said. Luckily, there is some urgency with it now, though by most accounts, the crisis really started taking off in 2009.

The question in conservation now, then, is what are the biggest problems to solve — and are we using the right technology to tackle them.

“You have technologists who like to build really cool stuff, and you have conservationists and scientists who have problems,” Schmitt said. “Sometimes they’re problems where you can take cool tech like drones and apply them, and sometimes they need a low tech solution and it really will help them a lot.”

For example, the census team needed a data logger for the planes to help them monitor their elevation in order to not skew counts. Before now, it was being done manually. The tech team at Vulcan simply took an Android tablet, built an app for it, and fit the tablet into a 3D printed case — and they had an advanced data monitor that cut their workload and increased accuracy.

Vulcan has had a technology team and incubator for quite some time. Throughout the last few years, the team has specifically focused on using technology for conservation and philanthropy, with the help of engineers, web developers, and everything in between. For instance, there is a group solely focused on drone work. Vulcan also offers its resources, such as the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, to the teams for further advancement in technology.

Other technological projects include: researching wearable devices to use instead of the big, bulky collars that are used to track wildlife so they can understand behavior, and mobile technology for data gathering and other things (smartphone technology has largely not been applied in the conservation world yet, Schmitt said). A combination of all these small and large scale technologies can catalyze the movement, because, as Schmitt noted, there is an untapped opportunity for tech in conservation.

Gobush said it’s an exciting time to be a conservationist. “With the tech ideas we can incorporate into these solutions, we can close in on these kingpins and middlemen soon.”

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