New in Nature

Elephants counted from space

African elephants are the first animals to be successfully counted from space while moving through a complicated landscape.

Scientists are using images from an Earth-observation satellite to count African elephants from space.  The breakthrough could permit up to 5,000 sq km of elephant habitat to be surveyed on one single, cloud-free day.

The satellite is orbiting 600km (372 miles) above the planet’s surface.  A computer algorithm trained to identify elephants in a variety of backdrops counts the animals.

Researchers combined high-resolution images captured by the satellites, along with computer learning to count the number of elephants. © Maxar Technologies

Dr Olga Isupova, from the University of Bath, explains, ‘We just present examples to the algorithm and tell it, ‘This is an elephant, this is not an elephant.  By doing this, we can train the machine to recognise small details that we wouldn’t be able to pick up with the naked eye.’

The scientists looked first at South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park.  This region has a high density of elephants and areas of thickets and open savannah, making it a prime location to test the approach.

Conservation organisations are already interested in using this technique to replace surveys using aircrafts, according to University of Oxford conservation scientists Dr Isla Duporge. 

The results of the study showed that the AI was as accurate as the human eye at spotting each elephant. © Maxar Technologies

Conservationists will have to pay for access to commercial satellites and the images they capture, but this approach could vastly improve the monitoring of threatened elephant populations in habitats that straddle international borders, where it can be difficult to gain permission for aircraft surveys.

Additionally, the scientists say it could be used in anti-poaching work, and that it is particularly helpful during the pandemic, since it does not require anyone on the ground.

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