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Citizen scientists around the world are monitoring elephants in Gabon via camera traps — and you can too

  • Camera traps have proven to be a powerful tool in conservationists’ arsenal for monitoring forests and wildlife. But the mountains of data they capture need to be sifted through in order to be useful, which often presents a significant challenge for cash-strapped conservationists and researchers.
  • To meet this challenge, a team led by Anabelle Cardoso, a PhD candidate at Oxford University in the UK, has turned to another promising new method that is reshaping the way research is done in modern times: citizen science.
  • Slow population growth and the ivory poaching crisis have driven down the numbers of African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in recent years. “We want to conserve these beautiful creatures, but to do that effectively we need to know where these elephants are and how many of them there are, so we can pick the best places to focus our efforts,” Cardoso and her colleagues write.

Camera traps have proven to be a powerful tool in conservationists’ arsenal for monitoring forests and wildlife. But the mountains of data they capture need to be sifted through in order to be useful, which often presents a significant challenge for cash-strapped conservationists and researchers.

To meet this challenge, a team led by Anabelle Cardoso, a PhD candidate at Oxford University in the UK, has turned to another promising new method that is reshaping the way research is done in modern times: citizen science.

Slow population growth and the ivory poaching crisis have driven down the numbers of African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in recent years. “We want to conserve these beautiful creatures, but to do that effectively we need to know where these elephants are and how many of them there are, so we can pick the best places to focus our efforts,” Cardoso and her colleagues write on the website of Elephant Expedition, the forest elephant citizen science project they launched in the West African nation of Gabon in collaboration with zooniverse.com.

Elephant Expedition was created to monitor forest elephants through a network of camera traps, and the project’s interactive website lets volunteers help classify the resulting photos. Cardoso told Mongabay that it’s not just elephants that citizen scientists might spot in a camera trap photo, however: “We also see loads of other exciting animals, especially gorillas and chimpanzees,” she said.

There are currently about 9,000 volunteers logging onto Elephant Expedition and pitching in, but the camera traps collect so many photographs that need to be classified — about 750,000 to date — that the team is “in desperate need of more help,” according to Cardoso.

Mongabay spoke with Anabelle Cardoso about how she first came to work on forest elephant conservation in Gabon, what impact citizen scientists are having on the success of the project, and how the results of the research will be used to inform elephant conservation efforts.

A mother elephant with her young baby suckling in front of one of the camera traps. Photo courtesy of Anabelle Cardoso.

Mongabay: You’re a PhD candidate at Oxford. What is your research focused on in general? And how’d you first come to work in Gabon?

Anabelle Cardoso: In our study site in Gabon, tropical savannas and forests interlock with one another forming a habitat mosaic that supports a very diverse range of species, including the endangered forest elephant. However, as is the case across much of Africa, valuable savanna habitat is being lost to forest encroachment as a result of human-induced global change. We are often told (quite rightly so) that tropical deforestation is a major problem, so you might not immediately think that forest encroachment sounds like a bad thing. However, when forest encroachment occurs into ancient savanna ecosystems, it leads to a loss in habitat diversity and it can be really detrimental to the ecological health of the landscape

In other parts of Africa we know that the bush elephant, which is a different species to the forest elephant, can help prevent this loss of savanna habitat, for example by knocking down trees. But nobody knows what forest elephants do to trees in these forest-savanna mosaics. Do they behave like bush elephants? Or are they doing something completely different?

To try and answer some of these questions, our team uses camera traps to monitor the elusive forest elephants. We investigate where and how many elephants there are in the landscape at different times of year, why the elephants might be choosing these places, and what effects they are having on the trees in the places that they visit.

Gabon is the perfect place to do this because it’s home to most of the world’s remaining forest elephants. Forest elephants are an endangered species as they are being heavily hunted across Central Africa, usually for their ivory (you can read more about this here). We know relatively little about forest elephants compared to bush elephants, but the more we understand the better we can implement conservation strategies to help protect them. Our work contributes to this.

A young elephant unwittingly waving hello to one of the hidden cameras. Photo courtesy of Anabelle Cardoso.

Mongabay: Why did you decide to monitor elephant populations in Gabon via camera trap? Where specifically are the camera traps?

Cardoso: The camera traps allow us to monitor the elephants 24/7, and we can set up loads at the same time across a large area, which makes them much more efficient than using people to monitor them. Forest elephants have also had to deal with a huge amount of hunting pressure for their ivory, so they can get quite spooked and upset when people sneak up on them in the forest (from personal experience, I definitely don’t recommend surprising a forest elephant)! The camera traps help with this though, because they are unobtrusive and don’t bother the elephants, which is ideal because we want to document them in their natural spaces without being intrusive or upsetting these beautiful animals.

The camera traps themselves are tied to trees along the forest edge, and they’re set to take photos when they get triggered by a motion or heat sensor inside the camera. Once a month our team hikes into the forest to download the photos and change the batteries. We have 40 cameras set up at our site in Gabon (although because the elephants are so endangered I can’t say exactly where the cameras are because we don’t want to accidentally allow hunters to track the elephants).

Mongabay: How did the idea for Elephant Expedition come about? How did you expect citizen scientists could contribute to your overall work?

Cardoso: When we first set up the project, the plan was that I would go through all the photographs myself and count the elephants, which retrospectively seems almost laughably optimistic, because we definitely didn’t anticipate just how many animals there were in the forest and how many thousands and thousands of photos we would end up needing to classify. Thankfully, through the University of Oxford, we linked up with Zooniverse.org, which is a wonderful citizen science platform that helps connect projects like Elephant Expedition with a great group of dedicated citizen scientists. Essentially, anyone with a computer and an internet connection anywhere in the world can participate.

In Elephant Expedition we’ve created a platform for citizen scientists to go through each photograph taken by our camera traps and classify it. Photos are classified according to whether or not they have an animal in them, and what kind of animal this is. If the photo has an elephant in it, the citizen scientist also counts how many elephants they see. The platform is super easy to navigate, and it’s really fun. It’s kind of like going on a virtual safari because you never know what you’re going to find next! What this does is create a database where all the images become linked with classification information, and then we can calculate how many elephants there were at a particular site at a particular time. This information is the core of our research, and without the citizen scientists this work would be impossible.

A beautiful mother elephant with her baby following sneakily, hidden behind her legs, taken by one of the camera traps. Photo courtesy of Anabelle Cardoso.

We find that citizen scientists are really observant and engaged, so the quality of the information we get from their classifications is absolutely amazing. The platform that Zooniverse provides for this connection between the project and the citizen scientists is also really engaging, so there is a lot of interaction between citizen scientists and the research team, which is beneficial to both. I am definitely learning a lot from the project volunteers and the feedback we get from them indicates they feel the same! It’s been really encouraging for us to see how many volunteers post the project photos to their personal Twitter or Instagram accounts, showing that they care about the elephants as much as we do.

Mongabay: So you now have nearly 9,000 volunteers, but is that enough for the amount of camera trap photos you’re collecting? How many photos is that on, say, a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?

Cardoso: We are so excited to be able to interact with this many interested citizen scientists across the world, and they’ve all been really dedicated to helping with the project, which is really encouraging. At the moment, though, we have nearly 750,000 photos to classify, and our team just needs more hands on deck to get through all of them! Every month there can be in excess of 3,000 images on each camera, and there are forty cameras, so it all adds up. The good news is that it’s really easy to help with the project just by visiting our project page. You can classify as many images at a time as you want to, so absolutely anyone can help with the project, no matter whether you have a spare 5 minutes or 5 hours.

A very impressive male elephant captured by one of the camera traps. Photo courtesy of Anabelle Cardoso.

Mongabay: Are the citizen scientists that have already volunteered their time for the project having the impact you’d expected and/or hoped?

Cardoso: Absolutely! This project wouldn’t be possible without our volunteers who give up their valuable time to help. Right now we are overwhelmed with the number of photos we need to classify though, and we really need more help. Every single volunteer makes a difference. Even just ten minutes of your time can help us get one step closer to understanding these elephants better. Plus, it’s quite enjoyable! I’ve got my whole family on to it, and they’re having the best time because they get to have all these amazing animal experiences that would otherwise be completely inaccessible.

Mongabay: What, in the end, is the goal of this research? Will it help inform conservation or management decision-making?

Cardoso: We want to understand what effect the forest elephants are having on their landscape, and how this might be different to the bush elephant. We will also be able to better understand their seasonal movement patterns. Understanding the forest elephants better can help to develop more effective conservation strategies and help to advocate more compellingly for their protection, both on a local and a global scale.

A mother and baby gorilla having a walk around the forest in front of one of the camera traps. Photo courtesy of Anabelle Cardoso.

Mongabay: Anything I’m not asking about that you think it’s important to know about Elephant Expedition?

Cardoso: One of the best things about the project is that it isn’t just elephants you spot in the photos! Our study site is filled with gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards, mandrills, pangolins, red river hogs, forest buffalo, monkeys, and lots of different antelope — all of which can be regularly spotted in the photos. So when you go on an elephant expedition it’s really more of a virtual safari through the central African rainforest! Plus, the website has features to keep a collection of your favorite images, which you can share on social media or even print out for your fridge if you want to. The website is also applicable for all ages so we encourage everyone from kids to grandparents to get involved.

We also have to mention that this research wouldn’t be possible without the generous financial support of The University of Oxford’s Hertford College Mortimer-May fund, and the support of Gabon’s Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN) and the University of Stirling.

A cheeky-looking elephant waving its trunk about in front of one of the camera traps. Photo courtesy of Anabelle Cardoso.