• This bull elephant is being closely monitored in Northern Kenya and is wearing a satellite GPS collar

    This bull elephant is being closely monitored in Northern Kenya and is wearing a satellite GPS collar. (Photo: George Wittemyer)

An African elephant’s tusks are among the animal’s most distinctive features. But unlike its curling trunk and huge ears, its ivory incisors also make it a target.

Ivory tusks are a lucrative business — a single tusk can be worth 18 months’ salary for a local ranger — and elephants are being killed for them. According to Save the Elephants, more than 30,000 elephants were illegally poached in Africa last year, with the trade being driven primarily by an increased demand for ivory in China, where the material is generally used for carvings.

Wall is attaching a tracking collar onto a bull elephant at Lewa Conservancy in Northern Kenya. (Photo: Save the Elephant)

Jake Wall, a PhD student in the University of British Columbia’s geography department, is hoping his work can help combat, or even one day completely stop, elephant poaching. While working for Save the Elephants, Wall designed several software algorithms that can analyze the elephants’ movement and detect whether they’ve been killed or injured. Each algorithm processes specific data collected from elephants fitted with GPS satellite tracking collars. “We can really start painting a picture of the elephant and what it’s experiencing,” says Wall.

The animal's movements are monitored through Google Earth. The software then takes the monitoring data, analyses it and reveals visual patterns. When it detects abnormal patterns, it sets off an alarm and local conservationists are deployed to the scene. The software can detect if an elephant stops moving or slows down. Wall says this could signal if the elephant has been killed. It can also detect if an elephant reaches an area where there is high risk of poaching.

More than 100 elephants have been equipped with the tracking collar in Kenya and South Africa, which contains a GPS unit and resembles a large leather belt. “Elephants are so big and rough on equipment, the collar literally has to be bomb proof,” says Wall. And with each collar costing $2,000, the project is an expensive one, making it difficult to protect every elephant.

Still, Wall is determined to use his technology to combat poaching. “To think of what is happening now with this current poaching crisis is just awful.”