article / 16 November 2023

How to Choose a Biologger - Tracking Elephants with Neus Estela Ribera

In the first article in my series examining the ways people find biologging tech for their project, Neus Estela Ribera, a Technical Specialist with Fauna and Flora, discusses how she used GPS collars to track elephants in Liberia and Guinea.

Read more about this series here.

To deepen my knowledge of biologging options available to conservationists, I arranged a meeting with Neus Estela Ribera. Neus is a Technical Specialist in Biodiversity & Conservation Monitoring at Fauna & Flora and she spoke to me about her experience finding biologgers for an elephant project. 

The project goals 

The project concerned two male elephants who regularly migrate from the South East of Guinea through Liberia to the Ivory Coast. Along this route, the elephants have been found to raid crops, damaging farmers’ livelihoods and worsening the relationship between the local people and conservationists.

Despite the conflict, locals would sometimes leave out food for the elephants, which shows some evidence of positive sentiment toward the elephants. Inadvertently, this has also incentivised the elephants to seek out other human settlements for food.

The project compensates local people who have had their crops raided in order to try and mitigate the conflict. The elephants themselves have had rangers manually tracking their movements to protect them. Fauna and Flora was already engaged in an initiative to promote beekeeping around at-risk crops in the area as a deterrent to elephants. In order to better manage these initiatives, the elephants were GPS collared to track their movements.

“One of the main goals was to try to find ways, develop strategies or methods to reduce elephant-human conflict with these two individuals. And also while we are using the data we receive from the collars to assess if the interventions we are implementing such as beekeeping are actually having an effect on the movements of those elephants…  The second goal was understanding movements, if there are any like preferences of those elephants.”

By collaring the elephants, the project would gain more information about the locations of the elephants. This in turn allows the community to better protect crops and work with members of the affected communities to reduce incidences of human-wildlife conflict. Movement data could be used to better understand the use of bees on elephant behaviour and whether it is an effective deterrent. The project could also result in greater understanding of elephant movement.

Choosing the biologgers

The first stage of the project was to get permission from the governments involved to collar the elephants. Once this was granted, Neus and her team worked with their partners to develop a proposal which left them options for identifying a suitable tech solution. 

When it came to choosing the collars, Neus reached out to two different experts for their opinion on what companies to consider; the vet who would be helping place collar the elephants and a fellow elephant researcher in Namibia. They recommended she look into collars developed by FollowIt and Africa Wildlife Tracking. She reached out to them to see what they would be able to supply the project. 

“So we basically made a table to compare the different aspects and we left the decision to the donor because the price was quite different. And then yeah, that's how the decision was made. But of course, if we need to look at technical features. What I remember is that, we were especially worried about the how much time the batteries would last because of all the effort put in the activity [of collaring the elephants] then you want the tags to last as much as possible and also the reliability I mean, making sure that we would be receiving locations in the frequency we needed.”

By reaching out to the companies, she was able to make a list of the different options available to her and prioritise components that would suit her project. These included reliable data collection and long battery life. Ultimately the main difference between the products was price and this led them consulting the donor who went with Africa Wildlife Tracking. 

While GPS provides very fine scale location data, it has to connect to multiple satellites and if the elephant is in dense vegetation or submerged in water, the signal may not go through and no location will be recorded.

They started with the collars recording data points every 12 hours but they were missing too many locations due to lack of satellite coverage. They were able to update the settings remotely and record location data every 3 hours. While this setting change did come with the trade-off of a shorter battery life, it has been very successful in accurately tracking the elephants.

Has it worked? 

The project has greatly benefitted from using of GPS collars, knowing the exact location of the elephants has meant that when they wander too close to a settlement, Fauna & Flora have the ability to deploy rangers to the area both to protect the elephants and the community. It has allowed for better community engagement and has helped strengthen the ongoing work to prevent crop raiding.

“We have set a geofence with the app of the collars. Which means that when elephants are in the protected area, where there is forest. It's OK, but when they breach the geofence and they are in people's crops, then the management of the protected area will start receiving emails and whatsapps… Rangers then can go again to the communities to do kind of sensitization about wild elephants around.”

Neus and her team were very pleased with how the choice of technology has allowed them to expand their project goals. This was the first elephant collaring project done in Guinea so it was important they got it right! Speaking about the process, Neus mentioned that knowing professionals who had worked on similar projects was a key component of how she was able to find the right collars for her project.

In this case, she relied on speaking with other experts to find the right companies and then conferred with the companies themselves to find the correct biologger for her. This helps show how those without backgrounds in conservation technology manage to navigate the biologging space.

With thanks to Neus Estela Ribera for speaking to me about their experiences. Keep an eye out for the next article in this series where I discuss choosing biologgers for monitoring an endangered seabird. 

Photo credits: Ruben Bañuelos Bons / FFI

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