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Tough task: making a battery fit for an elephant

Radio collars are helping conservationists protect elephants from an increase in poaching

Each of the three species of elephant faces two key threats. The first is illegal poaching for ivory, mainly, and meat. The second is habitat destruction and fragmentation. Elephants typically roam significant areas, but as human populations grow these habitats shrink. In the resulting conflict, elephants can destroy crops and kill people, leading to the culling of the animals. Currently, the Asian elephant is classed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the African bush elephant and African forest elephant are classed as Vulnerable.

Conservation efforts are more effective with better data, but monitoring wild animals is always tricky. Modern technology, such as radio collars and tracking devices, makes it easier but, in the case of elephants, their enormous range and size is a challenge.

Martin Haupt, who set up Africa Wildlife Tracking (AWT) with his wife Sophie in 1999, has witnessed a revolution in tracking technology. Today’s tracking devices provide highly sophisticated information about temperature, light intensity, daily movement and home range sizes, as well as data from an accelerometer – a sensor that measures 360-degree movement. All of which can be logged as often as every 10 seconds. Unfortunately, threats to elephants have increased at the same time, with a steady climb in poaching.

Initially, the devices were mainly used for research and conservation but now it’s becoming more for security reasons.

Martin Haupt Founder of AWT

These days, his client base is split between researchers and protecting the animals from illegal poaching.

AWT makes tracking devices for a wide range of animals, from birds to lions, all powered by Saft primary cells and distributed by Just Batteries. Each device is tailor-made for the species and its habitat. Approximately 9,000 elephants in Asia and Africa are fitted with an AWT radio-collar.

Even among the radio-collars designed for elephants, there are differences. “Forest elephants are a lot smaller and travel through denser areas, so a device can’t be high on the head,” says Haupt. 

These collars face more wear and tear and don’t last as long as those worn by savannah elephants. “There’s a huge number of things you have to take into consideration,” he adds.

If a collar is being used on an elephant for security to prevent poaching, a rapid alert is essential. “In a case like that you want something that can communicate immediately,” says Haupt. A satellite in geostationary orbit – also powered by a Saft battery – gives the client 24-hour communication.

The performance and robustness of the battery is crucial. It can cost a fortune to place a collar on an endangered animal, involving helicopter fees, vet bills and, sometimes, long travel distances.

If it fails due to a bad battery, there are huge costs involved. So we go for the best battery – and in my eyes that’s Saft with whom we’ve been working right from the start.

Martin Haupt Founder of AWT

Such reliability means that customers can be sure the collar will not fail at a critical moment. Gaps in the data-set would be a serious problem in the monitoring of an endangered species. “We’ve been able to guarantee the collars for two years because we know the Saft batteries are going to last at least that amount of time even in the worst case,” says Haupt. For pure and less demanding research tracking purposes, the lifetime is about seven years.

 

The collars have mortality and movement sensors, and they’re also designed to avoid a false alarm. For example, if a collar is upside down, it might be because the elephant is dead or it might simply be bathing in a watering hole. The collar also transmits temperature information, which will alter if it’s in water.

The battery must be heat-resistant and safe,” explains Saft’s Sales Manager Olivier Goujon. “Elephants are heavy and they can move around, they like to lie on the dust and remove everything, so it must be robust.”

Poachers are also becoming more sophisticated in their techniques, even managing to hack the GPS systems of nature reserves. To protect data, AWT’s software is encrypted. “This is the era we live in,” says Haupt.

The challenge for conservationists is to keep one step ahead of the poachers. Haupt’s clients use tags as well as collars, which can be placed on the body of the animal so, if a poacher takes certain parts, such as a tusk, they can still be tracked.

Haupt is realistic. “We are having successes, but if you look at how the elephant population has decreased in the past few years, it’s drastic.”

Given the scale of the challenge, reliable, long-lasting technology and high-quality data are paramount to achieving positive results in elephant conservation.

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