Which Animals Can Be Counted From Space?

Scientists are using AI and satellite imaging to count the elephants in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park.
Scientists are using AI and satellite imaging to count the elephants in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park.

Conservationists estimate that there are around 415,000 African elephants left in the wild – compared to 10 million just a century ago. However, it's difficult to pinpoint their exact population, because of the challenges of counting them in their natural habitat, a diverse landscape comprised of both grass and woodlands.

Now, these endangered animals are being counted from above, using satellites orbiting the Earth some 372 miles (600 km) away, and a computer algorithm created to quickly locate them amidst a variety of backdrops. As long as the weather cooperates, a satellite can survey around 1,930 square miles (5,000 sq km) of landscape in a day, speeding up the counting process and eliminating many human data collection errors. The process was successfully trialed at Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa.

According to researcher Olga Isupova, a University of Bath computer scientist, "Accurate monitoring is essential if we're to save the species. We need to know where the animals are and how many there are."

Finding elephants:

  • Researchers have used satellites to monitor animals before. For example, NASA satellites were used to find a secret penguin colony, and eyes in the sky have collected key data on whales.

  • "We just present examples to the algorithm and tell it, 'This is an elephant, this is not an elephant,” Isupova explained. “By doing this, we can train the machine to recognize small details that we wouldn't be able to pick up with the naked eye."

  • The populations of both African bush and forest elephants have plunged over the past century, mainly due to poaching and habitat loss. Satellite monitoring doesn’t disturb animals being counted, and can be used for elephants in any country, without regard to conditions on the ground, or whether permission has been granted for an aircraft survey.

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    • Scientists are using AI and satellite imaging to count the elephants in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park.
      By: Charles Gates
      Scientists are using AI and satellite imaging to count the elephants in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park.