'Help us learn more about endangered forest elephants' | University of Oxford
Forest elephant
African forest elephants are an endangered species.

'Help us learn more about endangered forest elephants'

In a guest post for Science Blog, Oxford DPhil student Anabelle Cardoso, from the Environmental Change Institute in the School of Geography and the Environment, writes about a citizen science project helping us better understand the endangered African forest elephant.

Anabelle and her colleagues need volunteers to help classify photos taken by cameras set up in a forest-savannah landscape in Gabon. Find out more about the Elephant Expedition project, and volunteer as a citizen scientist, here. The project is also on Twitter and Instagram.

'Our project is set up in a mosaic landscape in Gabon, where tropical savannahs and forests interlock with one another, forming a habitat that supports a hugely diverse range of species, including the endangered African forest elephant. In this landscape, and in many other African sites, valuable savannah habitat is being lost to forest encroachment as a result of human-induced global change. Most people don't think of forest expansion as a problem, but when it expands into ancient savannah ecosystems you lose habitat diversity and it can be really detrimental to the ecological health of the landscape.

'My research focuses on better understanding the factors that affect how much forest encroachment a landscape experiences, and elephants can be a key determinant of this. In other parts of Africa we know that the bush elephant, which is a different species to the forest elephant, can help prevent this loss of savannah habitat, for example by knocking down trees. But nobody knows what the forest elephant does to trees in these forest-savannah mosaics. Do they behave like bush elephants? Or are they doing something completely different?

'To try and answer some of these questions, our team uses camera traps to monitor where and how many elephants there are in the landscape at different times of year, as well as why the elephants might be choosing these places, and what effects they are having on the trees in the places that they visit. Gabon is the perfect place to do this because it's home to most of the world's remaining forest elephants.

'Forest elephants are an endangered species as they are being heavily hunted for their ivory across central Africa. A better understanding of forest elephants can help to develop more effective conservation strategies and advocate more compellingly for their protection, both on a local and a global scale.

African forest elephantAn African forest elephant poses for the camera in Gabon.

'Our 40 camera traps across the landscape set to take photos when they get triggered by motion or by heat. The camera traps allow us to monitor the elephants 24/7, and we can set up lots at the same time across a large area, which makes them an extremely effective scientific monitoring tool. Forest elephants have also had to deal with a huge amount of hunting pressure for their ivory, so they can get quite spooked and upset when strangers sneak up on them in the forest! The camera traps help with this, because they are unobtrusive and don't bother the elephants too much, which is ideal because we don't want to upset these beautiful animals.

'When we first set up the project, the plan was that I would go through all the photographs myself and count the elephants, which retrospectively seems almost laughably optimistic, because we definitely didn't anticipate just how many animals there were in the forest and how many thousands and thousands of photos we would end up needing to classify. Thankfully, through the University of Oxford we linked up with Zooniverse.org, which is a wonderful citizen science platform that helps connect projects like Elephant Expedition with a great group of dedicated citizen scientists.

'In Elephant Expedition we've created a platform for citizen scientists to go through each photograph taken by our camera traps and classify it. Photos are classified according to whether or not they have an animal in them, and what kind of animal this is. If the photo has an elephant in it, the citizen scientist also counts how many elephants they see. The platform is super easy to navigate, and it's really fun. It's kind of like going on a virtual safari because you never know what you're going to find next! What this does is create a database where all the images become linked with classification information, and then we can calculate how many elephants there were at a particular site at a particular time. This information is the core of our research, and without the citizen scientists this work would be impossible.

'We find that citizen scientists are really observant and engaged, so the quality of the information we get from their classifications is absolutely amazing. The platform that Zooniverse provides for this connection between the project and the citizen scientists is also really engaging, so there is a lot of interaction between citizen scientists and the research team, which is beneficial to both. I am definitely learning a lot from the project volunteers, and the feedback we get from them indicates they feel the same! It's been really encouraging for us to see how many volunteers post the project photos to their personal Twitter or Instagram accounts, showing that they care about the elephants as much as we do.

Elephant ExpeditionIt's not just elephants that are captured on camera...

'At the moment, however, we have nearly 750,000 photos to classify, and our team just needs more hands on deck to get through all of them. Every month there can be in excess of 3,000 images on each camera, and there are 40 cameras, so it all adds up. The good news is that it's really easy to help with the project just by visiting our project page. You can classify as many images at a time as you want to, so absolutely anyone can help with the project, no matter whether you have a spare five minutes or five hours. Every single volunteer makes a difference.

'One of the best things about the project is that it isn't just elephants you spot in the photos. Our study site is filled with gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards, mandrills, pangolins, red river hogs, forest buffalo, monkeys, and lots of different antelope. So when you go on an elephant expedition it's really more of a virtual safari through the central African rainforest! Plus, the website has features to keep a collection of your favourite images, which you can share on social media or even print out for your fridge if you want to. The website is also applicable for all ages, so we encourage everyone from kids to grandparents to get involved.'

The research has been made possible thanks to the University of Oxford's Hertford College Mortimer-May fund and the support of Gabon's Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN) and the University of Stirling.