ZSL Whipsnade Zoo becomes a space for high-tech wild elephant conservation.

by ZSL on

By Anne Dangerfield and Sophie Vine.

This year, the elephant habitat at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo is becoming a space for wild elephant conservation. 

The Arribada conservation tech initiative is working with ZSL Whipsnade Zoo to develop an early warning thermal camera system to help reduce human-elephant conflict in the wild. The project will use machine learning to automatically recognize the thermal photo of an elephant and send an alert to communities that an elephant has been spotted nearby. Alerts will reduce surprise elephant encounters, which are often the cause of elephants injuring humans and, in retaliation or fear, humans hurting elephants.

Photo - Three elephants feeding in their enclosure whilst a young elephant plays behind them, with a thermal imaging camera set-up in the foreground.
Whipsnade’s elephants in thermal vision feeding at their inside hay net.

Teaching a computer to automatically recognize an elephant in thermal vision requires thousands of pictures and the elephant habitat at Whipsnade Zoo is the perfect place to gather them. With the help of the keepers, Arribada has been collecting pictures over the last four months with special thermal cameras. 

Sophie Vines, our Thermal Imaging Intern describes a typical day taking pictures at the elephant enclosure:

"My day begins at the grass paddock where the elephants spend their summer. I get the equipment set up for some close-up shots before the elephant girls walk out. As they begin to troop out, sometimes one-by-one, other times altogether as a bundle of grey, I quickly switch on the cameras. The older girls hardly give me or my strange bright green boxes a second thought; occasionally glancing my way or pausing for a small grass snack on their journey to the hay nets. The youngest and cheekiest member of the herd, Beth, never fails to put on a show at the sight of me. Over the last few months I have collected numerous images of her charging around in front of the camera, trunk flailing. 

Photo - 2 thermal imaging cameras pointed towards the open-air elephant enclosure while an elephant is feeding.
The typical outside camera set up. I'm currently testing two different resolution sensors to see if one performs better than the other so taking side-by-side images to compare is one of my tasks.

Once the ele’s are on the grass for the day, I am often seen madly dashing around the outskirts of the paddock with my tripods, capturing different angles and noting weather conditions and the distance of the elephants from the camera. This information will help not only train a computer but test the limits of this technology. At what distance does the computer stop being able to identify the pattern of white pixels as an elephant? Is there an optimum temperature window, above which, elephant bodies become one with the scenery and identification becomes impossible? Answering these vital questions will help understand how these cameras will perform in the real-world, where communities will depend on them to help reduce conflict the face with elephants almost daily.

Training the computer to identify humans is also important. We can’t have emergency elephant alerts sent to communities every time a person walks past the cameras. So, part of my time is spent shadowing the keepers like a mad paparazzi desperate for the perfect shot. In addition to their daily work caring for the elephants, the keepers pose for the thermal camera, bringing in the photographs that will train the computer to differentiate an elephant from a human. But they do more than just pose for the camera. They are keen to help wherever they can, whether it be suggesting camera placements for great ele shots, discussing ideas for the technology itself or using their unique connection with the elephants to position them in the exact angles I need.

Image - Composite photo of 6 frames of elephant images with a machine selected area around each with a confidence score.
Select algorithm results with confidence in elephant identification between 0 and 1

During my time, I’ve realized it’s easy for keepers to become strangers to ZSL’s conservation work because they focus so much on the health and wellbeing of the animals in their care – but it’s not so easy with an overly eager intern waving cameras in your face! Many of the keepers have commented that this project has brought them back in touch with ZSL’s real-life conservation work to help the wild species they dedicate their lives to caring for in captivity. Their patience and enthusiasm for the project has been amazing. 

Although I’ve had some challenging days, this is a fantastic project to be part of and I can’t wait to see how it changes the lives of both wild elephants and local communities."

Arribada and ZSL will continue to develop and test the thermal cameras with Whipsnade Zoo’s elephants before taking them into real communities. We hope this project can connect people to ZSL’s conservation projects and show how animals in zoos can play a vital role in the conservation of their wild counterparts, help preserve wild animal populations and better their livelihoods.

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