The elephant herd at Whipsnade Zoo is not only wonderful to watch and a crucial part of the global breeding programme – it is contributing directly to elephant conservation in an unexpected way too.
In the wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are endangered, under enormous pressure as their habitats shrink to make way for people to live and farm the land. Their small and fragmented habitats mean they frequently come into conflict with people as they trample crop fields and villages.
Our conservationists work tirelessly to support people to live better with wildlife, and reduce the kind of human-wildlife conflict that threatens so many species like elephants.
If people living in rural areas near wild elephants could have enough warning that the animals are heading towards their crops or villages, they have time to move away without coming into direct conflict with them.
Recognising that technology could help with this, we led the development of an affordable solution that uses thermal cameras to identify the heat signatures of elephants, meaning the camera can detect the animals any time of day or night and send out an alert.
So – how are our elephants helping with conservation?
But to accurately recognise the heat signature of an elephant, the technology needs information. That’s where our elephants come in! Over a two year period we took more than 30,000 thermal images of the elephants at Whipsnade Zoo for this ground-breaking conservation initiative.
By collecting thousands of thermal pictures of the elephants from different distances, at different angles and while the elephants are busy doing different things like eating, swimming, or playing, we can provide the camera technology with everything needed to recognise an elephant – and tell it apart from another animal.
We worked with Colchester Zoo in Essex to ensure African elephants were also photographed and entered into the database too, meaning the technology can be rolled out in any elephant range country.
How will this zoo conservation help elephants?
The thermal photographs taken have been used to ‘train’ the camera technology to recognise what an elephant looks like by labelling the images collected. At the moment the model created can confidently identify elephants and people from up to 30 metres away.
It’s a fantastic achievement with exciting real world implications for both wild elephants the people that co-exist with them in Asia and Africa.
The HEAT (Human Elephant Alert Technologies) project brings together zoo research, scientists, zookeeper and technology experts to co-create a solution that would be completely impossible without our zoo elephant populations.
The next step is developing prototype cameras for deployment in the field, so that we can put the theory and the technology to the real test – and save elephants and people in the process.
Conservation projects at ZSL
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