UT researcher fights to save elephants

| Michaela Nesvarova

Thousands of elephants in Africa still get killed by poachers. ITC researcher Festus Ihwagi is actively fighting to make this stop and to protect these majestic creatures. His weapon of choice? Technology.

Photo by: Tanya Hewitt-Patel

Festus Ihwagi is a PhD researcher at the ITC faculty of the University of Twente. The goal of his work at the UT is to monitor poaching and to model how elephants respond to poaching. But he does more than that. As the Senior GIS Analyst and manager of the Save the Elephants’ GPS Tracking Program, Ihwagi has contributed to the development of many tools to protect the African animals, including special collars that can detect the sound of a bullet.  

No market, no poaching 

It is estimated that about 100.000 elephants were killed by poachers between the years 2010 and 2012. ‘In 2012, about 75% of the deceased elephants in northern Kenya died because of these illegal killings. Now the situation is better and the number decreased to about 35% - 40%,’ says Festus Ihwagi, whose mission is to help stop poaching altogether.

How can we make that happen? ‘The decline in poaching in 2013 happened because the international community agreed to shut down the ivory market,’ says the scientist. ‘If there is no demand, the killings will stop. This shows that the international community is just as important as the local one. I have never met a Kenyan who would wear ivory, by the way, the market is out there. To stop poaching, we also need to support the local rangers. Equip them with good gear, give them good conditions for their work.’ 

High-tech collars

‘Finally, we should come up with innovative means to find out where the poaching is happening,’ lists Ihwagi. ‘That is the part I’m really involved in. Within the Save the Elephants (STE) project, we track elephants using special GPS collars, for example. Thanks to that we can see exactly what they are doing in real time. If an elephant stops moving, we get an immediate alert and we can send rangers to the location.’

If an elephant stops moving, couldn’t that just mean it’s sleeping? ‘We use very high-tech collars that are equipped with accelerometers, which detect even the smallest movements,’ explains Ihwagi. ‘Elephants are almost never completely still, they flap their ears or interact with each other almost constantly. So it they are immobile for one hour, it’s a reason to worry.’

Photo by: Nicole Dangoor 

Accelerometers aren’t the end of the road, though. ‘Together with our partners we have recently developed a collar with ballistic shockwave sensors that can detect the sound of a bullet in the vicinity of the tracked elephants. These collars have been made by Vulcan Inc., a company founded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. This company also provided us with a free app that tracks elephants in real time – you can see all the tracked elephants live on your phone,’ says the scientist, showing the phone screen filled with tiny elephant pictures distributed all over the map of Africa.

Elephants move more at night

Thanks to his involvement in the STE project and primarily thanks to his research at the UT, Festus Ihwagi has found out that poaching has had a profound effect on the behavior of African elephants. ‘As a reaction to the threat of poachers, the daily routine of elephants has completely altered. Now they move a lot more during the night and stay hidden during the day,’ Ihwagi sums up his most recent research paper. ‘These findings are very unique, because until now nobody looked at the daily routine. Everyone focused on the long-term migration patterns.’

Moving more at night might sound like a good solution for the elephants, but this behavior change could have negative consequences. ‘We don’t yet fully understand what this could lead to,’ clarifies the researcher. ‘But, for example, this can result in a limited interaction between the female and male elephants that want to mate. Also, young calves can be more easily attacked by nocturnal animals such as hyenas, because elephants don’t see well in the dark, which gives the carnivores a clear advantage. So even though this might solve things in a short term, in the long run we simply need to eliminate poaching.’ 


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