The Eavesdropping AI That’s Helping Rangers Track Africa’s Elusive Forest Elephants

Tracking and protecting Africa's forest elephants requires a mix of traditional knowledge and modern technology.

AI-backed listening devices aim to track elephants - and their poachers - in the dense African rainforests.

Author Mark Newton, 09.05.18

According to the Great Elephant Census – first launched in 2015 – Africa is estimated to have lost a third of its elephants in the last decade due to illegal poaching, with some countries, such as Tanzania, losing over sixty per cent.

The problem also appears to be spreading, with conservationists recently discovering the carcases of ninety slain elephants in Botswana, a nation which was previously considered a relative safe haven for Africa’s elephants.

One major challenge for anti-poaching groups is often how to efficiently utilise their limited resources over a vast, often international area. Luckily advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are coming online to provide a helping hand to rangers on the ground.

The Elephant Listening Project (ELP), launched by Cornell University, is just one endeavour looking to combine technology with traditional rangering. The project, which works closely with artificial intelligence startup Conservation Metrics, has developed innovative listening devices which can better inform rangers of elephants’ locations – as well as the location of their poachers.

Rangers’ Ears in the Forest

ELP has installed dozens of listening devices into the forests of Nouabalé-Ndok, a 930 square kilometre national park in the Republic of the Congo, which are then used to eavesdrop on elephant activity. This information is then passed onto rangers on the ground, who can use it to better plan and execute patrols. Furthermore, the sensors can also detect the sounds of poachers – such as gunshots – alerting anti-poaching workers to their presence.

In the past, the turn-around time of this information cycle was far too long, with information sometimes taking three to four months to reach the rangers. This was primarily because each recording of possible elephant or poaching activity had to be filtered through a human worker, greatly delaying the process and diminshing the use of their information. Conservation Metrics are confident they can change that.

By using artificial intelligence and machine learning to decipher ELP’s recordings, Conservation Metrics claim they can drastically reduce the time required to process the information, providing it to rangers when it is still actionable. By listening to thousands of recordings of elephant calls, the artificial intelligence algorithm can very quickly learn to identify elephants among the other sounds of the African forests – with the same going for poachers. What’s more, once more sensitive listening devices have been developed, the algorithm can also learn to more accurately differentiate similar sounds, for example between a twig snap and a gunshot.

Currently, the artificial intelligence component of the project is still in its infancy. There are also still logistical issues which are slowing down the process, namely retrieving the data from the often hard-to-reach recorders and then sending it from the Congo to the US to be analysed. Additionally, some also suggest that technology which tracks poachers by their gunshots is already far too late to be of direct actionable use to prevent poaching.

Despite this, the project has shown enough promise to be awarded funding from Microsoft’s AI for Earth Initiative, which looks to provide backing and tool kits to similar conservation orientated projects.

Indeed, we have seen several such projects emerging in the past, including artificial intelligence algorithms that can better plan rangers’ patrol routes, and animal spotting technology that can track animal movements, as well as the those of the poachers that hunt them.

TAGGED WITH
How Satellite Collars for Elephants Are Helping Tanzanian Rangers Get a Technological Edge Over Poachers

A new satellite collaring initiative aims to bolster the dwindling elephant numbers in Tanzania’s national game reserves.

Star Spotting Technology Is Being Brought Back to Earth To Help Save Endangered Species

Technology that was originally developed for finding and identifying stars billions of miles away is now being put to use a little closer to home.

Google’s Facial Recognition AI Helps Identify Endangered Species in the Wild – and Their Poachers

Facial recognition tech is the latest tool in the fight against poaching, with London Zoo embarking on a new trial which could drastically improve conservation efforts.A new project, developed in collaboration with Google, will use machine learning and image recognition software to identify and catalogue animals snapped by remote motion-sensitive camera traps.

Could Artificial Intelligence Help Us Predict the Next Epidemic?

The medical startup AIME has successfully combined public health data and artificial intelligence to come up with a method of predicting the outbreak of epidemics before they even happen.

PAWS: Artificial Intelligence Helps Patrollers Hunt for Poachers

Computer scientists from the University of Southern California (USC) developed an artificial intelligence tool that helps prevent poaching by predicting where it is likely to happen and suggesting patrolling routes.

9317466685_7e82f7eae9_z
(Paolo)
WildLeaks Tackles Global Poaching and Forest Crimes

Once called ‘Langxang’, the kingdom of a thousand elephants, Laos is still home to one of the largest remaining populations of Asian elephants in Indochina, said WCS. A sad fact is that poaching for ivory causes a drastic drop of elephant population and the forested part of the country