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Could satellites save elephants from extinction?

Elephants photographed from space by Maxar Technologies
(Image credit: Maxar Technologies)

With African elephants at risk of extinction, conservationists are often looking for new ways to track them in nature – and the latest method is totally out of this world. A clever algorithm combined with a space satellite is being used to capture images of elephants to help aide conservation efforts. 

Elephants are being photographed by an Earth-observation satellite that's orbiting above the planets surface. This method is being described as a breakthrough, as it allows scientists to survey an area of up to 5,000 square kilometers of elephant habitat on a single cloud-free day.  

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Scientists are using images from the satellite to count the number of elephants in the habitat. Dr Olga Isupova, from the University of Bath, discusses how they train the algorithm to pick out elephants from complex backdrops that would be difficult to distinguish with just the naked eye. "We just present examples to the algorithm and tell it, "This is an elephant, this is not an elephant.

"By doing this, we can train the machine to recognize small details that we wouldn't be able to pick up with the naked eye."

This kind of technology could help prevent poaching and improve conservation efforts. The ability to count the specific number of animals in a given area means that they can be tracked and monitored remotely. For example, if the number of elephants are dropping in a particular area, efforts can be localized to prevent further losses. This helps create a far more efficient method for conservation. 

Currently, aircraft is being used to survey areas that could be replaced by this method of photographing areas from space. This is especially useful because gaining permission to use aircraft over certain areas can be difficult. While conservationists will have to pay for the use of commercial satellites, this could potentially be a breakthrough moment for elephant conservation.

Satellite imaging is definitely an exciting emerging consumer technology. While it has clear benefits for conservation, you can take also your own photos from space with Canon's satellite (opens in new tab).

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Usman is a commercial and architectural photographer based in West Yorkshire, who has been working professionally for over seven years. He has also spent over four years as a writer for the biggest photography sites in the world, including Staff Writer for Digital Camera World, senior staff writer for FStoppers, and tech writer for Petapixel. 


With a particular interest in technology developments, high-resolution imaging and the high-end cameras, Usman has been on the cutting edge of camera news as well as writing features about medium format systems and global shutters, and has reviewed some of the latest Leica cameras as well as a tripod that’s even taller than Andre the Giant!