GPS tracking on elephants: A viable method to unearth wildlife secrets?


A statement was made recently by Minister of Environment and Wildlife Resources S.M. Chandrasena about a programme for the allocation of Global Positioning System (GPS) tags or collars on elephants which would enable officials to ascertain the animals’ whereabouts. The programme was said to have started last Monday (8) in Anuradhapura and was directed towards tracking wild elephant movement to minimise human-elephant conflict (HEC). 

The attachment of tracking collars has taken place for years on all kinds of animals by researchers for the purpose of studying animal migration patterns.

The news piqued our interest in unfolding exactly how the GPS collar would curb matters in the long run, and in getting closer to uncovering the truths of these mighty beasts roaming our forests. The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Wildlife Health Director Dr. Tharaka Prasad, who explained that the data uncovered would provide detailed information on the migration patterns of animals. 


How the GPS collar works

While researchers of wildlife conservation retain basic information on home ranges of animals such as the reason for movement to a specific place, why they turn at certain points, why they show slow movement in certain points, etc., which can be viewed through computers, the GPS collar would enable the collection of more in-depth data which will be redistributed amongst range officials based on their interests. This includes the existing home range, the number of elephants inside parks, water sources, etc. According to Dr. Prasad, collaring programmes have been conducted even before 1996.


Important research tool

Speaking to Centre for Conservation and Research Sri Lanka Chairman, Trustee, and Scientist Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, we learned that GPS tracking has been conducted in Sri Lanka in the past where the organisation has tagged nearly 80 elephants. According to him, GPS tagging is an important research tool which provides basic information such as an elephant’s position every six hours, i.e. whether the animal is inside or outside a park. He said: “(It) can be used as a guideline. Which is what we have been doing for many years.” 

The organisation has tracked around 80 elephants and one of its main findings is that Sri Lankan elephants do not retain a migratory pattern. Instead, they are bound by home ranges which they become familiar with year after year. Although home ranges extend between 50-600 km², on average it would be 200 km². “Some elephants retain home ranges that are inside protected areas, whereas some are entirely outside. Some use protected areas as well as outside areas,” Dr. Fernando explained. 

The collar also helps officials uncover geofences which contain real-world geographic data. For instance, white and brown dots may resemble human settlements and greenery, forests, and paddy fields. Separation between human settlements and forests will alert officials through an SMS when and if an elephant enters a village. “When this happens, we will know where the message came from along with target points. We will then inform the officials,” Dr. Prasad added. Following this, officials will conduct operations and alert residents of possible elephant encounters.


Sensory mechanism

The collar itself comprises a GPS tracker and battery which can be placed either on the top or bottom of the neck of the animal, although the GPS unit, as Dr. Prasad indicated, is always attached on the top. Researchers are often able to identify whether animals are deceased or not depending on sensors attached to the collar which detect movement; a motionless state for 18 hours or more is an indication of a deceased animal.

Collars are installed with programmes that receive and emit GPS points, and points per day will be transferred to satellites via satellite communication. Researchers are able to receive data under numerous methods such as satellite phones, GSM, and even directly to the CPU (central processing unit), although officials currently resort to satellite phones due to the inability to obtain uniform GSM coverage. Dr. Prasad indicated that currently, the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Moratuwa has developed a collar which is awaiting approval, and will be utilised for future use.


Battery lifespan

The lifespan of batteries has often been subject to contradiction. Dr. Fernando stressed that while the collar remains useful in obtaining positions nearly every minute or so, the technology is battery-intensive, hence it loses its battery life fast. Dr. Prasad explained that when a collar is in use, it could only last two years, where the load of data would ascertain the battery life of the collar. This is subject to change as the battery will utilise less battery power upon retrieving less data, where the battery could possibly last for five to six years. 

Reiterating on the battery’s lifespan, Dr. Prasad said: “It is not perfect, but it’s average.”

The collar emits data on battery voltage; certain collars attached onto smaller animals fall off when the battery falls below a certain amount of voltage, the collar automatically triggers the lock to come off, and the collar detaches itself from the neck. This is not however the same with elephants, Dr. Prasad deciphered.


Is it practical?

However, Dr. Fernando does not view such collaring to be a practical method in the solution to persistent issues such as the HEC. Tagging an elephant alone is one hard and complicated operation which poses risks to both the life of the elephant as well as the people who are engaged in conducting it.

Dr. Fernando explained: “It is a complicated process. For example, the Department (of Wildlife Conservation) got 40 collars more than two years ago, and they have been able to attach 20-something collars.”

Additionally, he stressed that while the number of elephants that can be collared remains limited, the number of elephants actually causing trouble is high. 

Knowledge of an elephant’s whereabouts might also not be viable in certain instances such as when an elephant has already entered a village. Researchers, such as Dr. Fernando have raised concerns over the possibility of elephants entering a village and raiding it, despite efforts to chase elephants away. “So even if you have a collar on such an elephant, you have to still confront the elephant, come into conflict with it, and chase it away. So how practical is this going to be? Because the more you do that, the more aggressive the elephant is going to get,” he commented. 

Photo: Krishan Kariyawasam