For the first time, elephants moving through a complex landscape ranging from open grasses to forests have been spotted and counted from space using satellites and a pinch of AI.
The combination of high-resolution images, captured 600 km above the Earth's surface by Worldview 3 and 4 satellites , and an in-depth computer learning program , has indeed made it possible to count the elephants of the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa.
Normally, this painstaking job is usually done from low-flying planes and takes many hours. But with this new technique combining satellite imagery and artificial intelligence as precise as the human eye to locate each elephant, scanning an area of 5,000 km2 can now be done in just a few minutes .
A combination of more efficient techniques for counting elephants
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), only 415,000 African elephants can be found in the wild. This new technique is then the key element to ensure the survival of this endangered species which is also on the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
To save this species, precise surveillance consisting in locating these animals and counting them is precisely essential. The success of the computer program in identifying elephants in their complex environments, including partially tree-covered grasslands and savannas, ecologically referred to as "heterogeneous landscapes", makes satellite imagery an ideal survey method and more effective than overflight surveys.
And this, especially with this new technique, the counting is faster and more precise, because it avoids counting the same elephants twice. Indeed, the satellite images are analyzed by a deep learning computer algorithm, which will select individual elephants in order to recognize them.
Counting elephants to track their population just got easier
Although this technique is still a proof of concept, organizations working for the conservation of nature are ready to use it to replace surveys and ground monitoring involving airplanes.
Indeed, as this technique makes it possible to carry out a remote survey, it reduces the impact of researchers on animals, and facilitates the counting of individuals who move between countries. Note that due to strict border control and conflict zones, it is often difficult to do these follow-ups from planes.
This survey method is also a constantly evolving method that is bound to improve over time. As the resolution of satellite images increases every two years, it might even be possible to spot and count other smaller species in the future.