Using Drones To Monitor the Health of Endangered Elephants (2024-2025)

Background

Globally, all three species of elephants (Elephas maximus, Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis) are considered endangered or critically endangered. As the largest terrestrial mammals, elephants play an essential ecological role, shaping ecosystems through trampling and eating plants while contributing to carbon sequestration through dispersing the seeds of carbon-rich tree species. Monitoring elephants is essential to understand current and rising challenges to their survival and determine conservation strategies in a changing environment. 

However, there is a lack of technologically advanced monitoring of existing elephant populations. Satellite collars have been used to study the spatial ecology of elephants, which is key for understanding movement patterns and habitat use. Nevertheless, satellite collars do not collect data on a fine scale and do not visually observe individuals. Intermittent monitoring of herds is necessary to examine elephant body condition and health as well as population dynamics and reproductive success. 

Drones (unmanned aircraft systems) provide a noninvasive, time-efficient and cost-effective solution to create monitoring programs of elephants that can be coupled with long-term movement datasets. As drones are integrated into elephant research, they have been used to conduct population surveys and monitor migration routes. However, drones have not yet been used to assess elephant body condition and health.

Project Description

This project will integrate existing satellite collars and elephant movement data with advances in technology, including drones and camera traps, to evaluate elephant movements and body condition in Kafue National Park (KNP), Zambia. Two critical aspects of the project are the development of drone technology and analysis tools, as well as conducting fieldwork and data collection.

This project will be divided into three subteams. The first team will develop data analysis methods and build a drone with a very high frequency (VHF) receptor. A second team will focus on elephant spatial data, examining differences between activity patterns and habitat use of orphan and wild elephants. The third team will focus on photogrammetry, processing drone images and camera trap photos to evaluate elephants’ body condition.

Small groups of students and team leaders will travel to Zambia throughout the project year. During Summer 2024, team members will pilot camera trap and drone methods, validate habitat types and generate data on elephant habitat use. They will collaborate with conservationists and researchers in Zambia to refine research questions, improve methods and meet stakeholder needs. Then, during winter break, students will travel to Zambia to test the VHF drone and collect body condition data. Finally, in Summer 2025, a team of students will use finalized methods and technology to collect more data on elephant habitat using VHF and photogrammetry drones as well as camera traps.

One important component of this team’s learning will be evaluating the ethical considerations of working in an international setting and developing decolonized research practices. Team members will participate in a monthly speaker series from experts who will explore decolonizing ecology and research frameworks, and will work together to develop best practices for the team to put into action in their own fieldwork and beyond.

Anticipated Outputs

At least two manuscripts; development of a drone with a VHF receptor; development of long-term, noninvasive elephant monitoring techniques and a comparative body condition dataset; handbook on conducting decolonized international research and best practices for responsible use of new technologies

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 6 graduate students and 3 undergraduate students. Students from a variety of majors and programs are encouraged to apply, especially those in ecology, engineering, computer science, statistics, ethics and sociology. 

This project offers students a unique opportunity to participate in every stage of research, develop novel technologies, explore an unfamiliar ecosystem and endangered species, and consider the ethical considerations of working in an international setting with a focus on decolonizing research practices. Students will gain hands-on experience with literature reviews, expert collaboration and technology deployment. They will have the chance to enhance their problem-solving, design, engineering and team management skills, as well as the potential to develop a master’s project.

Selected students will gain international fieldwork experience in Zambia, where they will learn to work in multicultural teams and conduct research in a remote environment. These students will work 40 hours per week from approximately June 1 to August 1, 2024.

Timing

Summer 2024 – Spring 2025

  • Summer 2024 (optional): Seek IACUC approval; travel to Zambia for pilot study and collection of body condition data; connect with project partners and collaborate on study design
  • Fall 2024: Conduct literature review; begin building new VHF drone; test camera trap and drone methods; process data gathered from summer fieldwork; participate in decolonization discussions
  • Spring 2025: Revise and finalize drone design; create statistical models; write framework for best practices on decolonized international research; continue decolonization discussions

Crediting

Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

 

Image: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, by Benoît Rivard, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image: South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, by Benoît Rivard, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Team Leaders

  • Martin Brooke, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Nicolette Cagle, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • David Johnston, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Halina Malinowski, Nicholas School of the Environment–Ph.D. Student
  • Sarah Roberts, Sanford School of Public Policy and Nicholas School of the Environment

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Joshua Matheson, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Lisa Olivier, Game Rangers International - Head of Research - Conservation Behavior Advisor

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Daniella Chusyd, Indiana University Bloomington