Researchers Get a Clearer Picture of Elephants' Plight
African Elephant Cause Aided by the GIS Community
Joyce could use some help. A 62-year-old grandmother and matriarch to an extended family, she struggles each day to keep her clan intact. Joyce is one of approximately one-half million threatened African elephants--a population whose numbers have plummeted to less than half of what they were just 20 years ago.
Lucky for Joyce, she has a friend, and she and her relatives live with that friend at the Amboseli National Park at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Her friend is Dr. Cynthia Moss, a natural scientist and author of several popular books about elephants, who for more than 30 years has been an advocate for African elephants and is dedicated to the continued survival, preservation, and well-being of this endangered species.
In 1972, Moss and a colleague, Dr. Harvey Croze, cofounded the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP), which studies the ecology and social behavior of the 1,160 elephants currently living in and around the park. Because of the presence of the AERP researchers, tourists, and the native Maasai people who discourage trespassing, most of the Amboseli elephants have been spared from poachers. They are one of Africa's few remaining undisturbed elephant populations. Moss and Croze, professional animal behaviorists and ecologists, spoke at the plenary session during Esri's 22nd Annual International User Conference in July 2002.
Moss and her three assistants collect, analyze, and disseminate data on the animals, and by paying particular attention to behavioral differences among individual elephants, they have provided key insights into the evolution of elephant behavior and the complex ways in which the animals respond to changes in their environment. They have identified more than 1,800 elephants using photographs to recognize unique elements in their ear patterns and are now at work synthesizing the findings and observations with the help of GIS.
A Spatial Database Spanning 30 Years
Increased human activity in the elephants' habitat and an exploitive attitude throughout Africa toward them has led to their declining numbers, according to Moss. "Only 20 years ago, elephants were still considered just another species to exploit, in their case for their ivory," she says. "Our research has helped to change people's perception about what elephants are--intelligent, complex animals, which deserve our consideration in the way we deal with them."
Over the last three decades, the AERP has produced one of the longest and most extensive data sets available for any population of large mammals. The project's data management and analysis have evolved from using paper maps with hand-recorded data to its present-day use of satellite imagery to analyze spatial and temporal changes in the Amboseli ecosystem.
"Collecting spatial data was always something we did," says Moss. To study behavioral patterns and to determine elephant distributions, it was necessary to document information such as date, time, and place. In 1972, computers were large, cumbersome, and not readily available outside the university setting. Nevertheless, Croze encouraged the data collectors to record information on 80-column computer sheets. They were using a method called systemic reconnaissance, which involved dividing the ecosystem into a grid, doing systematic aerial observations combined with groundwork, and then calculating estimated distributions.
They collected data for nine years before Moss was able to take it to Cambridge University and have the data transferred to a computer. Several iterations followed over the years. Currently, the research team inputs observations into an Access database. "It's all amalgamated now," says Moss. "The database starts from September 1, 1972, and goes to today."
Realizing the Potential of GIS
Croze, a former director of the United Nations Environment Programme/Global Resources Information Database in Nairobi, had used ArcView for his research at the United Nations. He knew a GIS would be valuable to the AERP. "We wanted to build a professional GIS that we could pull the 30 years of data into, and then use it as a watershed to go forward for the future," says Croze.
With donations of new computer hardware from Hewlett-Packard, satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe and EarthSatellite Corporation, and Trimble GPS units along with software and technical support provided by Esri, Moss and Croze are looking at their data anew through a GIS lens. "It's opened a whole new way of looking at the data," says Moss. "Things pop out at you--patterns we didn't realize!"
Being sustainable means being efficient, and Croze says that the GIS is helping AERP to be more efficient in how it uses its limited resources to preserve elephant habitats. "One way of being more efficient is to understand better what we have, where it is, and how we can use it," says Croze. "These technologies bring into focus the ideas we have for where elephants are distributed and why."
The GIS spatial and temporal analysis is enabling AERP to accurately visualize how the elephant distribution changes over time, how the elephants respond to changing human behaviors, and patterns of intergroup dominance among the elephants. In one example, initial temporal studies paint a clear picture of how a few of the male elephants, which usually live apart from the females, stay in the safe areas during the day and venture outside their boundaries at night to raid farmers' crops. The analyses also assist AERP in making and negotiating precise land use planning decisions.
Cultural boundaries usually supersede physical boundaries, and it's no different with the Amboseli elephants' range as it spills out in all directions from the safety of the park. While Moss and her team have concentrated the study area mostly within the Amboseli National Park, they are eager to see the total range of these elephants. Using 61-cm resolution QuickBird satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, the researchers have been able to identify current positions of elephants from space. With this imagery, it is even possible to distinguish the size of each elephant. When this information is combined with family histories and field observations, researchers may learn even more about the traveling patterns of the Amboseli elephants.
"We do have a philosophy of noninvasive research in our study of wild animals," says Moss. Tracking elephants that have been fitted with radio collars has been discontinued because the process traumatizes the elephant. "This technology is a way for us to find out where the population is going without harming them."
Creating a Legacy
Each year, Moss has had to take time away from her work to raise funds to sustain AERP. Two years ago, she set up the African Elephant Conservation Trust to provide a secure source of funding for AERP and to seed similar programs. "My goal is to build up an endowment for the project that would have enough money in it to run the yearly operating costs of the AERP and to seed and support projects that use our philosophy and methodology in other parts of Africa. We want to share our knowledge and now our technology."
You can help Moss and her friends ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures with your contribution. Contact the African Elephant Conservation Trust, 10 State Street, Newburyport, MA 01950 (tel.: 978-352-2589) or visit www.elephanttrust.org.