Thursday, July 17, 2008

Use of IT Systems and Social Networks

to Save the Asian Elephant

Michael Brashier

BSIT Major, George Mason University


The Asia Elephant has seen its population decline from approximately 200,000 in the year 1900[i] to somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 in 2005[ii]. The primary contributor to this population decline is of course man. The most damaging man-made threats are encroachment, logging, and poaching. During the 1900’s and early 21st century the human population of Southeast Asia increased exponentially. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia all have native Asian elephant populations that have been encroached upon by farmland. Farming reduces the elephant’s grazing land and increases the frequency of contact between humans and elephants. These incidents often result in death for the elephant and occasionally for the humans as well. Every year in Sri Lanka 120 elephants and 60 humans are killed during nighttime elephant raids on plantations [iii]. Poaching is the other serious man made threat to the Asian elephant. One study estimates that over three hundred tusks were harvested during a 20-year period in a single province in India [iv].

Perhaps the most efficient destroyer of elephant habitats is logging. Elephants need to use the cool forest canopy for shade during the hot dry season. A particularly cruel irony is that elephants are often more efficient then trucks at carrying the felled trees from deep in the forest [v]. They’re being used to help destroy their own habitat.

Man has done tremendous but not permanent damage to the Asian elephant population. The 75% population decline we have caused since 1900 is not irreversible. We are using information and communications systems (ICT) to gather data that was cost prohibitive or simply unobtainable just a few years ago. The increased computing power of the past several decades combined with small form factor equipment and wireless communications has driven new innovations in wild animal tracking. With these new tools we have learned a great deal about the elephants and we’ve gathered new insights into how to manage them better.

To speed up the elephant’s recovery I believe we should make more people aware of their value to the planet. With modern ITC systems we can give millions of people a virtual view of the elephants. We should access the data that scientist are collecting, add a few features to it then package it in a form that is easily accessible to anybody that is interested, especially children. The goal is to inspire people to help save the Asian elephant and in the process create more economic incentive to help them.

Wildlife Data Collection

Our ability to track wildlife and thus learn more about its behavior has improved substantially over the last 20 years. In the past scientists used radio telemetry to locate an animal from a plane or truck, then manually record it’s position on a map [vi]. In contrast modern GPS systems give us an animals position data at much more frequent intervals and also during the night when many animals are most active.

ZebraNet is a mobile sensor system, designed at Princeton University, in which a GPS chip, a 900Mhz radio, and a microcontroller work together to track an animal’s position [vii]. The cleverest feature of the ZebraNet system is the way it overcomes the challenge of collecting data from a scattered animal population in a habitat with very few nodes at which they can upload their data. The system is encased in a collar that fits around the animal’s neck. When the animals are near each other the ZebraNet forms a peer-to-peer network over which the data of each animal is copied to the collars of all the nearby animals [viii]. This feature negates the need for scientists to recover the data from every individual animal. They only need to recover from a single animal or wait for the animal to move within range of a data collection node in the animal’s environment. The aggregate data of every animal in the proximity is then uploaded.

Now that we can get more frequent and accurate position data we can develop knowledge about many aspects of the elephants life. When we plug this data into geographic information systems (GIS) we see patterns emerge immediately. For example we can view migration and foraging patterns and we can see how weather patterns affect grazing [ix]. Now that we know where elephants like to travel we can do everything possible to avoid them.

All of this knowledge can be used to develop conservation plans as well as identify problem areas that need immediate action. This is exactly what scientists are doing in Myanmar where they overlaid elephant tracking data onto field surveys [x]. They discovered that most of the remaining large populations of Asian elephants are taking refuge in the country’s border areas [xi]. The hills, woods, and border in these regions give them some measure of safety.

As helpful as these new tools are I believe we can multiply their value by sharing the data they provide with more people and in more interesting ways.

The Next Step

It’s not enough to track elephants and use the data to minimize contact with them. We need to create new demand for their existence. Humans are the most dominant species on Earth. If we can find a positive use for elephants then we can increase their chances of survival. To do that we should start with what we already know about them.

For the most part only scientists are using the data being collected by systems like the ZebraNet. The data is shared in a relatively diluted form to the public via museums and niche biology or science based websites. We have the technology to not only share this data with more people but to add more mainstream features to it. We need to add some hardware to animal tracking systems to create a Pachyderm Area Network (PAN). With the PAN in place we then build some web-based software to access it and mash it up.

The Pan

The current generation Apple iPhone weighs less then 5 oz. ( yet it contains a wireless radio, camera, microphone, microcontroller, and a battery big enough to provide eight hours of talk time. We can add these components and a small solar panel to systems like ZebraNet without adding any significant weight or bulk. The PAN hardware would of course be optimized for the elephant’s rugged environment but still is so lightweight, relative to the elephant’s 6000lb body, that it would be practically unnoticed. These components could give us a window into the elephant’s world beyond just gps data. We could see and hear what the elephant does and in real or almost real time. To further aid scientist, implanted biometric chips could record the elephant’s health statistics. Tusk embedded RFID chips could help combat poaching. The next step is to take the PAN’s video, audio, biometric, gps, and RFID data and share it with the world.

The Mash-up

We can create new demand for the Asia elephant’s existence using the Internet. Like humans, elephants are very social animals. They have very strong social networks that they depend of for food, water, and safety. Humans now have web based social networks that we depend on for information, communication, and sometimes fun. If we combine our digital social networks with the elephants social networks using the PAN data we can create a platform for educating people about the Asian Elephants plight, fundraise, and aid in conservation.

For this proposal I am assuming a large percentage of the approximately 40,000 wild Asian elephants have a PAN installed. The first step is to get the entire PAN video, audio, gps, and biometric data onto the web. Next we build a website that identifies all PAN carrying elephants. The more we personify the elephants the better.

Now that this information is in a user-friendly format and on the Internet it is much easier for schools and museums to use it to teach children about the elephants. Kids might even form a bond with their favorite elephant.

The final step is to add the PAN data into our social networks. Users of iPhones, Facebook, MySpace and all the other networks can sponsor elephants for small fee that funds the elephant’s conservation efforts. When you sponsor an elephant you can embed all the elephants data including video and gps into your social profile and share it with all your friends. Facebook and iPhone apps are already being used for similar human sourced data feeds

The biggest value multiplier comes from combining the human’s social network with the elephant’s social network. For example John Doe sponsors an elephant named Elle. All the other people that sponsor Elle then befriend John. John as an enlightened individual that cares about animals automatically has something in common with all of these people. This association works both ways. Elle has twenty other elephants in her social group according to the GPS data. When somebody sponsors one of Elle’s friends or family members then John is informed and can ‘friend’ them.

John and his friends are free to create their own mash-ups with the PAN data. I imagine there will be numerous apps that compare and analyze every possible aspect of the elephant’s lives from land speed to heart rates. Whenever there is multiple sets of data available people will compare them.

Stop Digging and Start Building

Man created most of the Asian elephants problems by turning their habitat into farmland and paper products. However we are making efforts to help them. Using ITC systems we have learned a great deal about their behavior. This knowledge is the foundation of all of our conservation efforts. I believe we can do more by creating a web-based platform for people to study, share, and learn from the ICT data we are collecting from the field.


    [i] Chadwick, D.H. 1991. Elephants - out of time, out of space. Natl. Geog. May:14

    [ii] Focus 2005. Species Spotlight - Asian elephant. Focus (World Wildlife Fund) 27/2:2.

    [iii] "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Asian Elephant Conservation Fund." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Feb 2004. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 12 July 2008

    [iv] Animal Conservation (1998), 1: 281-291 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S1367943098000262

    Published online by Cambridge University Press 30 Mar 2001

[v] Hile, Jennifer. "Burma Save. Logging Keeps Asian Elephants in Business ... for now." Grist. Environmental News and Commentary. 13 Sept. 2005. 9 July 2008 <>.

    [vi] Mills, Cynthia. "Animal Tracking in the Virtual Age." Animal Planet. 12 July  2008. 12 July 2008 <>.

[vii] Zhang, P., Sadler, C. M., Lyon, S. A., and Martonosi, M. 2004. Hardware design experiences in ZebraNet. In Proceedings of the 2nd international Conference on Embedded Networked Sensor Systems (Baltimore, MD, USA, November 03 - 05, 2004). SenSys '04. ACM, New York, NY, 227-238. DOI=

[viii] Juang, P., Oki, H., Wang, Y., Martonosi, M., Peh, L. S., and Rubenstein, D. 2002. Energy-efficient computing for wildlife tracking: design tradeoffs and early experiences with ZebraNet. In Proceedings of the 10th international Conference on Architectural Support For Programming Languages and Operating Systems (San Jose, California, October 05 - 09, 2002). ASPLOS-X. ACM, New York, NY, 96-107. DOI=

    [ix] The Smithsonian Institute. "People–Elephant Conflict: Monitoring how Elephants Use Agricultural Crops in Sri Lanka." The National Zoo. Smithsonian Institute. 10 July 2008

    [x] The Smithsonian Institute. "Conservation GIS" The National Zoo. Smithsonian Institute. 11 July 2008

    [xi] [x] The Smithsonian Institute. "Conservation GIS" The National Zoo. Smithsonian Institute. 11 July 2008

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