Friday, June 14, 2013

Use Your Technical Savvy To Save Elephants

Deep in the rainforests of Central Africa there lurks a precious beast nearing the end of its existence. Pursued by illegal hunters out to kill it for personal profit, this animal is worth far more than the ivory it carries. It is a unique species of value to both nature and humanity. When it is gone, it’s gone, and time is running out as you read this.

Learn more about the Elephant Listening Project and how you can help...“But what can I do?,” you ask. “I don’t even have the skills needed for conservation work.”

Oh, but you do. In the case of the forest elephant, technology is desperately needed. Mostly, creative thinking on how to apply technology in new and creative ways.

Does this pique your interest? If so, you may be exactly the right person to figure this out. The issue is how to find out where the remaining elephants are and what they are up to. It might sound simple enough to grab a pair of binoculars and a notebook and keep track of these elephants like many other research projects have done. In this case, its not that simple. The forest elephants are few and far between and roaming deep in closed-canopy forests.

If it wasn’t enough that they are hard to find and hard to track, there is a big problem of big data. That’s right. The research going on now is generating megabytes, gigabytes and terabytes of data which is pretty much stuck on site with no quick way to get it to the researchers who need it.

One key approach to finding and tracking the forest elephants is by sound and photos. The Elephant Listening Project (ELP) has installed a network of acoustic and video sensors to detect the large beasts and record what they are up to. In more populated areas it would be a simple job to upload all this real-time data onto the Internet or private networks for transport to the research labs. But what do you do out in the middle of truly nowhere where there is no connectivity of any type?

Here are your challenges, if you choose to accept them. First, figure out a way to move massive amounts of digitized audio and video out of the dense forest and back to where it can be analyzed. I’m wondering about some combination of cellular networks, satellite or balloon-born communications, such as Google's proposed Project Loon. Can ham radio, commercial shortwave or longwave communications technology be of help? How would you power this equipment reliably under a dark canopy?

Second, figure out a way to mark individual elephants from a safe distance. What’s needed is a simple and safe way to identify each elephant without the risk of harming the elephant or getting humans trampled. Knowing what the herd is doing is very valuable. Knowing what each member of the herd is doing is even more valuable. One idea is to “tag” each elephant with infrared-visible paintballs. How could a unique pattern of markers be quickly and reliably used to track each individual?

Third, come up with a way that citizens of Central Africa can get excited about participating in this important research that affects them most of all. One idea is to develop a cellphone app that can be used to identify elephant and other animal calls from the forest. If you’ve developed iPhone or Android apps, you may be able to get something deployed quickly and easily. What other ideas can help “crowdsource” this research effort?

If you have been horrified by the stories of rapid extinction among wild animals that we’ve always taken for granted and have a creative bent, perhaps here is an opportunity to do something important. Learn more about the Elephant Listening Project and how you can submit your ideas that could make a big difference. Check out the Elephant Listening Project website and, if you have ideas already, you can contact the ELP immediately with your suggestions.

Click to get more information and view sample videos.

Note: Photo of African Forest Elephant courtesy of Peter H. Wrege on Wikimedia Commons.

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