Collective custodianship of biodiversity is urgently needed for people, elephants, and other species to co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. Using web-based technology, ElephantVoices has developed a unique model for citizens to monitor and protect elephants. The Mara EleApp permits the collection and upload via cell-phone of geospatial data including elephant group type and size, the presence of specific individuals, wounded elephants and mortalities to the fully searchable, publically available Mara Elephant Who’s Who & Whereabouts Databases. These databases house a mapping interface permitting the export of filtered data for use in informing conservation management.
Key Objectives and Activities
With the advent of social media, web technologies, cell-phones, and the revolution in Internet connectivity, new opportunities present themselves for engaging people in collective custodianship of biodiversity. The project aims to:
Grow communities contributing data, sharing information and working together to protect the Mara and Gorongosa elephants;
Promote the protection of habitats upon which elephants depend;
Establish a sound basis for elephant management decisions;
Instill in participants a heart-felt connection for the individual elephants they observe;
Make this conservation model widely available.
Planned Outputs and Outcomes
Informed elephant conservation practice, contributing toward a long-term future for elephants and biodiversity in the Mara ecosystem;
A core group of strategically placed individuals who are invested long-term in protecting elephants and their habitats and who represent a seed for continued change in attitudes;
Better understanding among the local communities of the important role elephants play in sustaining biodiversity and supporting livelihoods;
A conservation model for use in other range states and elephant populations, in terms of its “compassionate conservation” philosophy, the web solutions and the use of cell phone applications for data collection.
Results to Date
ElephantVoices Who’s Who & Whereabouts Databases have been developed for Maasai Mara (Kenya) and Gorongosa (Mozambique), and, by the end of 2014 were populated with 1,214 and 139 individuals and 2,882 and 132 group sightings, respectively. In Mara, more than 245 individuals have contributed data to the system. An Android version of the Mara EleApp was launched in 2012, and ElephantVoices recently expanded the app to include elephant signs (e.g., tracks, tree rubs) so that such observations can be used to monitor populations in areas of low elephant density where sightings are rare. The online database now has mapping and exporting functionality for registered users, and data from both populations are being used to educate the public and to inform conservation management. As an example, the Narok County government invited ElephantVoices to submit a report on how elephant data could be used to inform spatial planning for conservation (see below).
Primary Software Platforms
ElephantVoices is built in Joomla!, an open source content management system (CMS) based on PHP and optimized for Apache Web Server. The fully searchable Mara Elephants Who’s Who & Whereabout databases are programmed in php/MySQL with Ajax interface. The Mara EleApp for Android is built in Eclipse with ADT, while the ElephantVoices EleApp for iOS (with The Mara EleApp included) is programmed in Xcode.
Poole, J; Granli, P; Okita-Ouma, B; Kimanzi, D; Hamilton, I.D; Goss, M; Tiller, L; Kiambi, S (2016) Mara ecosystem connectivity report: Information on elephant population status and movements for spatial planning and conservation in Narok County.
ElephantVoices believes that this project has been a successful pilot of the technology and approach for monitoring elephant populations with citizen science. They are in the process of generalizing the database so that it can be implemented with other populations as well. Some lessons learned are that:
The goal of creating a sustainable network of volunteers conducting citizen science and active conservation requires relatively more investment, per-volunteer, than other, more anonymous, implementations of citizen science. The team wishes it had had more time and resources to invest in training and engaging the volunteers to the standard they planned.
The high visibility that comes with working with such critically endangered species means that there are trade-offs that must be made to protect the elephants. To prevent poachers from locating elephants using this information, the access to the database is restricted to registered users. Though this means the data are less available than is ideal, it is a necessary and responsible response to the recent increase in poaching.
The ID system works well, but it requires dedication and experience to register and identify individual elephants and verify data. The group admits they might have underestimated the capacity needed to keep up with the flow of incoming data.
Large ecosystems with numerous partners pose logistical and follow-up challenges. The ID database makes it entirely tractable to individually monitor the estimated 1,500 elephants that reside in the Mara ecosystem. However, through this work, they have discovered that 4,000 – 5,000 elephants use the habitat, a number that is infeasible to track individually. A less-complex population might have been appropriate for this pilot phase of the project.
The approach aims to motivate collaborative monitoring of elephants, yet many data collectors want to use such data for the promotion of their own efforts. While the project has inspired increased focus on elephants it has sometimes been at the expense of their own initiative.
Project Director Biography
Dr. Joyce Poole is a world authority on elephants, having studied them and worked for their conservation for 37 years. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University, carried post-doctoral research at Princeton University, and is known for key discoveries in elephant behavior, communication and cognition through studies undertaken in Amboseli. As head of the Elephant Program at Kenya Wildlife Service, Dr. Poole was responsible for the conservation and management of the country’s elephant population at a key period after the ivory trade ban came into effect. Her main biodiversity interests are connected to elephants’ cognitive responses to human activities. Elephants are highly sensitive to opportunities and threats, require large, ecologically diverse areas, influence ecosystem form and structure, and can play a valuable socio-economic role. As human impacts change, elephant movement is altered and biodiversity affected. These variables are key to biodiversity conservation in Africa and central to the interests and priorities of ElephantVoices.
Notes from JRS
ElephantVoices is an important and respected NGO in its region whose activities span advocacy, training, and research. The Elephant Partners project is one of several JRS projects that bring together hand-held technology with on-line, geospatially referenced databases to improve conservation efforts, fundamental research, and the engagement of local communities and stakeholders. The tragic elephant poaching epidemic of 2012 to present raises challenging questions about whether public access to data and spatial information about rare species could endanger them further. 2014 will be a productive year for work with the Mara EleApp and Whereabouts database as well as for ElephantVoices efforts to collaborate with other governmental and non-governmental organizations in the region.