Visual monitoring of wild animals has been modernized over the years through technologies such as high definition photography and camera trapping. Researchers can now document populations, movement, and behavior of certain species using large volumes of data over longer periods[1,2]. These tools aid population research, but photo-identification still relies on our ability as humans to distinguish certain features of individuals. Because identification remains a manual task, extracting information from visual data can be expensive and time-consuming. (Read our previous blog on UWERP’s EARS – Elephant Attribute Recording System – IDs Database here).
MSc student, Elgiriyage de Silva, at the University of Colombo, is lead author on their recently published CNN study, alongside others including Dr. Shermin de Silva and Udawalawe Elephant Research Project’s (UWERP) Research Supervisor, T.V. Kumara. The study made use of CNN in order to determine the feasibility of such technology to identify Asian elephants, and used 10 years of labeled photographs of wild Asian elephants collected by the UWERP study. The researchers considered full body, face, and ears as three points for individual identification. Two techniques namely Training from Scratch (TS) and Transfer Learning (TL), which made use of a pre-trained model, were applied to five CNN models: Xception, Inception V3, VGG16, ResNet50, AlexNet. These models were evaluated for their efficiency in correctly identifying an individual as the top candidate or including the correct individual among the top five possible candidates.
Before COVID-19, the field team would regularly visit the Udawalawe National Park to track and monitor the elephant population in the region. They update records by seeking out new calves, checking for injuries or deaths among the population, and observing their day-to-day behavior. All of this regular contact also maintains a good relationship with the park authorities. During the lockdown, however, this work was impossible to carry on and our visits occurred in fits and starts, on again off again every few months.
On top of that, our work with the local community had also come to a halt with the island-wide lockdowns. District boundaries, which ordinarily one could cross without the slightest thought, turned into checkpoints that harked back to the civil war. Udawalawe National Park in fact straddles two, and suddenly our field team, based in one district to the West side of the park, could not cross over to visit the communities we had been working with in the East. They nevertheless kept in touch by phone to ensure we can resume our work on the Coexistence Project when the lockdown is lifted.
As the world grows more crowded, spaces inhabited by wildlife and humans tend to overlap resulting in human-wildlife conflict (HWC). While peaceful coexistence is possible, negative encounters due to various factors continue to be a challenge in conservation. Human expansion into wildlife habitat is especially problematic for Asian elephants that need a large area for their ecological needs. As a result, these animals break into human settlements and cause significant losses to the community.
Life has been a challenge for everyone these past two years. COVID-19 has made every little aspect different and difficult. Much like everyone else, I too, had to adapt and change to this new normal. The country’s situation was much better in 2020 than in 2021. As the virus started to spread, many rules and restrictions were imposed, our conservation work was hindered. Meanwhile, the lockdowns enabled increases in poaching, elephant killings, human-elephant conflict and the like.
Against such a backdrop, I tried my very best to stop these unauthorized activities in and around the Udawalawe National Park, relying on the assistance of farmers, villagers, environmental organizations, the Wildlife Conservation Department, and the Forest Department. Both the Wetakhirakanda and the Dahaiyagala corridor were key area of focus for most of these activities. Over the years being in this region and my work outside of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, I have strengthened relationships with these stakeholders – especially the villagers and farmers – which allows me to be updated and quick to respond to any such activities.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for people and the planet. In celebration of Earth Month, we broke down all 17 Global Goals to discover how each relates back to our mission to protect and conserve Asian elephants and their habitat.
Global Goal 1: No Poverty
In developing countries where elephants roam wild, like Sri Lanka, poverty and elephants can become intertwined. Small farmers can lose their entire livelihood overnight from an elephant raid, and an 8,000 pound animal walking through a farm can destroy everything in its path.
Finding ways for farmers to make a living alongside Asian elephants is key to the survival and success of both elephants and people. Our Coexistence Project studies both sides to develop innovative ways that farmers can maintain a steady income while living peacefully alongside wild Asian elephants.
The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is decreasing with approximately 1500 elephants left in the wild in fragmented populations. Deforestation, loss of habitat and poaching for ivory are amongst the major threats to the survival of this species.
The Leuser Ecosystem (which forms a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’) and Ulu Masen in Aceh, Sumatra are a stronghold for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and other critically endangered wildlife (e.g. orangutans, rhinoceros, and tigers). Both Leuser and Ulu Masen are essential for the survival and conservation of the Sumatran elephant, but much of their habitat falls outside the protected areas and in the most threatened lowland forests, creating elephant human contact. This makes it critical that effective mitigation strategies are developed that take into account elephant behaviour and the use of technology such as early warning systems to reduce conflict with the local communities.
The floating object task is a puzzle that comparative cognition researchers present to animals (including humans) to study the evolution of cognitive abilities, like cause and effect understanding and the ability to use water as a tool. To solve the task and retrieve the floating reward inside, you must add water to a tube to raise the water level and reach the reward. Some primates, like orangutans have been able to solve the task by carrying water in their mouths from a drinker and spitting it into the tube to reach a peanut.
My colleague, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, and I presented this puzzle to elephants for the first time (Barrett & Benson-Amram, 2020). We wanted to see if elephants’ unique trunk morphology would make them well-equipped for the floating object task. Since they spray water for bathing, and hold water in their trunk as a vessel for bringing it to their mouth, we predicted that they would be up for the task. We collaborated with the National Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo to carry out this research. We used a tube filled about 1/3 of the way with water, baited with a floating marshmallow. As is often the case with animal research, things did not go as we expected.
When we saw the destruction, we felt that strange sensation of history repeating. We’d been here before, a little over ten years ago.
Dahaiyagala sanctuary is a little-known, nondescript little strip of forest north of Udawalawe National Park, one of the two official “corridors” that supposedly links the park to the outside world. It is supposed to lead to another forest area, which conservationists and wildlife authorities refer to as Bogahapattiya. It also borders Pokunutenna village, a hotbed of unrest with respect to human-elephant conflict. Dahaiyagala represents unfinished business to the various parties, in very different ways.
Back in 2004, a male calf was born to the young female elephant, 458. The calf had baby tusks and this made his birth all the more special. He was named Therapuththa, or T458. We named him Therapuththa but labeled him as T458, following his mother’s ID, this is because it helps us keep track of him in the future when we catalog his movements, features and characteristics. His name, Therapuththa, was taken from ancient history: it is said that King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors protecting him and Therapuththa was one of the most loyal and endearing ones. The mother, 458, was often spotted with two other female elephants, who we have labelled as 040 and 041. After tracking this herd for so many years, we have unfortunately not seen any calves after Therapuththa. So he was quite special, besides being a tusker, which is rare in Sri Lanka.
Consider unique gifts and treats that give back! Whether for yourself or that special someone, our Elephant Store has the perfect gift for everyone on your list from notebooks and weekend totes to performance shirts and cozy blankets. Best of all, your purchase will directly support our work to protect endangered Asian elephants and their habitats.
For the Wildlife Lover…
Symbolically adopt a wild Asian elephant with our Elephant Adoption Kit. Each animal available for adoption represents a real individual from the population in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka. Adopters receive a Certificate of Adoption, exclusive information and updates about the elephant, and the option to add an adorable plush.