AI Helps Protect Endangered Elephants

According to the U.N., up to 100 elephants are slaughtered every day in Africa by poachers taking part in the illegal ivory trade. This amounts to around 35,000 elephants killed each year due to poaching.To help fight the problem, Conservation Metrics, a Santa Cruz, California-based startup, is using deep learning to help detect the sounds of elephants, as well as gunfire, and get a more detailed understanding of how these animals are doing.

For this project, the company teamed up with Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project, which tracks various elephant herds throughout the 580-square-mile Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, located in the Republic of Congo.

“What the Elephant Listening Project is doing in terms of working with collaborators on these sites in Africa is really impressive, but the logistics are really hard,” said Matthew McKown, CEO of Conservation Metrics. “It’s a truly ambitious project, and it’s the first time we’re actually realizing the potential of these automated monitoring approaches.”

Using NVIDIA TITAN Xp GPUs, and several deep learning frameworks, the company trained their neural networks to track patterns of elephant calls and gunshots. The park rangers then use the data to locate the herds and determine where the poachers are operating.

Right now, the company uses the same GPUs used during training for inference. However, the company recently received a grant from Microsoft to use GPUs on the Microsoft Azure cloud for both training and inference.

According to the company, they analyze over seven-terabytes of recordings every three months just for this one project alone.

“A key thing this collaboration will do is speed things up, so we can show the people who manage the national park that we can provide information that will make a difference,” Peter Wrege Ph.D. director of the Elephant Listening Project said. “If it takes us a year to figure out what elephants are doing in the forest, it’s already too late.”

The video and spectrogram above show an intense greeting between two African forest elephant females, Kate and Tess.

The company is also working on several conservation projects around the world. Since 2012, they have completed over 300 projects in 23 countries. The company is also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.

“Acoustics isn’t going to stop the poaching, but I do think what it offers may be the only way we can get information regularly enough,” McKown said. “It’s daunting, but it’s worth it, and it can be done. We just have to keep at it.”

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