Toy with a purpose

MEME researcher Lim We Siong is turning hobbyist air craft into high tech conservation tools, which will be used to to make detailed maps that will enable researchers to better understand the relationships between land use planning and the development of human-elephant conflict zones. MEME (Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants), a collaboration between the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks is studying elephant populations in and around the Belum-Temengor rainforest.

LIM Wee Siong used to be a quality assurance engineer in Silicone Valley, until he quit his job and decided to get into conservation work. Now, he spends his time pimping up hobbyist aircraft under the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) project.

It has taken him six months to figure out how to build, fly, crash and repair a remote-controlled airplane. Now he’s ready to use it to make detailed maps that will enable researchers to better understand the relationships between land use planning and the development of human-elephant conflict zones.

The planes are programmed to follow a specific flight path, using open-source software built and uploaded for free. A digital camera is attached to the plane, and as it soars, a series of images or videos are captured, creating a detailed 1-2cm pixel resolution map of the landscape beneath.

The technology is sourced from an organisation called Conservation Drones which teaches conservationists how to build their own “drone”, for the purposes of surveying and mapping forests.

“This beats google maps or Landsat any day,” says Lim.

The long-term goal is to tie up aerial surveys with ground surveys. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, MEME’s principal investigator, is keen to move away from elephant numbers. Not only is producing population data expensive, but there is a large margin of error, he says. He thinks it makes more sense to use the elephant-occupation of an area as a proxy for the situation of the population and how it has changed over time.

MEME has started doing this, by dividing the land up into a geographical grid, and conducting surveys to find out where elephants are being seen now, and where they were seen 10 to 20 years ago.

The data can then be combined with drone-generated maps, to create a visually informative management tool for use in land-use planning and wildlife management. Once ready, the tool should shed light on where and in what situations translocation might be most appropriate.

So far, MEME’s data suggests that elephants gravitate towards the interfaces between forest and development.

“So there might be plenty of primary rainforest around, but elephants will often still choose to venture out into human-dominated landscapes,” says Campos-Arceiz.

It is simple: grass lands, crops and the early succession plants of secondary forests are nutrient rich, unlike primary forest vegetation, where elephants have to spent more time foraging to find edible food as most plants contain toxins and other chemical defence mechanisms.

“In other words, we can spend all our lives just moving elephants around, however in some instances it may just be better to build a barrier, such as an electric fence, and teach locals to be more tolerant and better adapted to co-existing with elephants,” says Campos-Arceiz.

He is currently studying the feasibility of using an insurance-based instrument which compensates farmers for crop-damage.

There might be instances where translocation is the better option, such as in the case of a small group of geographically isolated crop-raiding elephants. Due to their genetic isolation they hold little conservation value in the long term. In this instance, translocation to a habitat which allows them to interact and mix with other elephants will enable them to contribute to the overall genetic diversity and conservation of the species.

Related stories:

New dawn in elephant research

A jungle lab

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