World Wildlife Day: Tracking Elephants From Space

Elephant at the NC Zoo

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African elephants require large tracts of land and have long migration routes to find food and water. Increasing human populations and associated increases in farmland have disrupted many of these migration routes and fragmented much of the elephants’ historical range. Expansion of farmland has also increased conflicts between humans and elephants. Crop raiding by elephants destroys local people’s sources of food and creates a negative attitude towards elephants. This in turn can lead to revenge killings of elephants and encourages poaching. 

Using Satellites to Track Elephants

Predicting elephant movements is one way to help prevent human-elephant conflict. Despite their size, tracking these giants can be a challenge for conservationists due to thick vegetation, rugged terrain, and wariness of elephants to people. The North Carolina Zoo has been working to help solve elephant conservation problems in the central African country of Cameroon for 15 years. Zoo staff, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), uses sophisticated satellite tracking technology to monitor the movements of elephants at several sites across Cameroon. By placing satellite tracking collars on elephants, Zoo staff can identify important habitat areas for protection and intervene before elephants reach farmlands, helping to prevent conflicts with people.

Elephants on West Africa’s Tallest Mountain

Zoo staff is currently focused on elephants in the Mt. Cameroon National Park, where several collars have been deployed. Data form the collared elephants on Mt. Cameroon suggests that there may be two separate populations of elephants in the national park, divided by a steep valley and difficult terrain. Since Mt. Cameroon is a dormant volcano, there are even old lava flows that act as barriers to elephant movement. Now that they have a general understanding of elephant distribution on Mt. Cameroon, Zoo staff is planning to use DNA data to try to understand how long the two populations have been separate and how many elephants in total live on the mountain.

Expanding the Project

Recently, Zoo staff have expanded their project to two new areas: The Ebo Forest in Cameroon and Nigeria’s Yankari Game Reserve. The Cameroonian government is in the process of developing a national park in the Ebo area and it is imperative that elephant migration routes are taken into account when laying out the park boundaries. At Yankari, data from the collars will be used to help rangers protect the elephants from poaching and to prevent crop raiding by elephants in local farms.

For more information about the North Carolina Zoo's conservation programs: