The elephant in the map

Marena Brinkhurst
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Jul 6, 2020

The elephant in the map

Marena Brinkhurst

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Jul 6, 2020

How EarthRanger protects wildlife with real-time data

Rangers from Big Life Foundation watched the small dot move across their screen: Jenga, a 31-year old male elephant wearing a GPS tracker, was on the move. Using their EarthRanger system, the rangers carefully followed the elephant’s progress through a protected wildlife corridor linking Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and Tsavo National Park to make sure he avoided areas that could bring him into conflict with humans.

Jenga’s journey through the wildlife corridor (Source: Big Life Foundation)

Across the border in Tanzania, park managers for the Grumeti Game Reserve were looking at a heatmap of ranger movements to evaluate the efficiency of patrol patterns. But something didn’t look right: one ranger was spending an odd amount of time in a spot outside of his patrol area. An investigation uncovered a poachers’ hangout and a corrupt ranger.

Protected area managers use EarthRanger to monitor the Western Serengeti (Source: Grumeti Fund)

Protected area managers in parks around the world need to monitor vast expanses of land and protect wildlife with limited resources. Streamlined, real-time, easy-to-use data on their territories is a game-changing tool to combat poaching and prevent human-wildlife conflict. Enter EarthRanger, a software tool built by Vulcan Inc. to meet the unique needs of protected area managers and rangers.

A data platform for protected areas

The creation of EarthRanger in 2015 was prompted by the poaching crisis illuminated by the 2014 Great Elephant Census. A partnership between Vulcan, park managers, governments, and NGOs across Africa, set out to create a practical technology platform tailored to the needs of park staff in the field so they could collect, use, and share data more effectively.

EarthRanger demonstration data

Today, EarthRanger has a dedicated product team of 18 software engineers, UX designers, user support staff, and managers based in Seattle, Nairobi, Entebbe, and Johannesburg. The software is used in 80 conservation areas across 22 countries, including early partners African Parks, Save the Elephants, and the Mara Elephant Project and more recent additions including the Snow Leopard Trust, Smithsonian research on giraffe migration corridors across Africa, and even tracking locust swarms.

We work in close partnership on a daily basis with the most incredible group of conservationists from around the world who not only provide the direction for our product but also the inspiration to work as hard as we can to support them.
— Jes Lefcourt, EarthRanger Product Manager
Tracking reported locust sites in Kenya (Source: Northern Rangelands Trust)

EarthRanger helps wildlife defenders to plan enforcement activities, evaluate patrols, and see information in geospatial context. Historical data trends reveal insights into animal behavior, ecological changes, and threat hot-spots. And real-time data alerts from remote imagery or sensors help rangers respond rapidly to threats like fires, new deforestation, or breaches of monitored perimeters, for example when a GPS-collared elephant wanders out of a geo-fenced protected area and into farmland.

At Mara Elephant Project, we’ve come to rely on the EarthRanger web app as part of our daily operations. Integrating and visualizing tracked wildlife, vehicles, ranger teams and the stream of event data they generate in real-time gives us operational insight never before possible. We especially like how we can use the new web app on a mobile device in the field.
— Dr. Jake Wall, Director of Research & Conservation,
Mara Elephant Project

Practical makes perfect

Central to EarthRanger’s widespread adoption is an unwavering focus on user needs. From the start, it has been purpose-built in collaboration with protected area managers. All features build on existing workflows, rather than requiring them to change tried-and-true operations. Data insights are provided in actionable formats geared towards rapid response. The software is highly visual and intuitive so users can learn it quickly and stay focused on their core operations.

Designing for ease of use is paramount for a product that is used in time-critical situations. Poaching and other kinds of incidents need to appear clearly and quickly on the map. We have to do everything we can to present the optimal amount of information: Too much data and the map is useless… too little and it’s even worse.
— Michael Coyote, EarthRanger Designer and Developer

The hardware and connectivity requirements of EarthRanger also respect the resource constraints and remote environments of most protected areas. The minimum technical requirements to deploy EarthRanger are a laptop or mobile device and an internet connection. The application itself is delivered through a web browser, so no IT staff or infrastructure is required to maintain it. Almost all support can be provided remotely by the EarthRanger team when needed. The team has built integrations with over 50 hardware manufacturers, like sensors and animal tracking collars, giving managers flexibility in technology choices. And users retain complete ownership of all data tracked and logged in EarthRanger so that they can be used with other analysis tools.

Visualizing wildlife tracks in EarthRanger

The path ahead

The latest release of EarthRanger included an update to Mapbox GL JS from Mapbox.js, which opens up a new range of analytics and visualization tools for the product team to use. Isochrones can inform security forces how far an elephant poacher could travel after a report of a gunshot or carcass. Flexible runtime styling options help combine information into a single data visualization, such as communicating both the historic and current health of a rhino using different icons and colors on the animal’s tracking line. Fleet management techniques can be applied to patrol management features to plan and monitor the progress of rangers.

Mapbox gives us powerful tools and APIs right out of the box, and the freedom to design and create highly specialized solutions. WebGL-accelerated rendering means we’re well-positioned for the next generation of high resolution tracking devices, and enables us to design new and inventive solutions.
— Joshua Krautwurst, EarthRanger Software Developer
Rangers on patrol in Amboseli, Kenya (Source: Big Life Amboseli)

Wildlife is under constant attack all around the world. Habitats are shrinking, demand for traditional medicines or trinkets is fueling poaching, and climate change is compounding vulnerabilities. Conservation is a complex, difficult, and often dangerous job. Tools like EarthRanger help to equip wildlife defenders on the frontlines of protecting our natural environment, but we can all play a role to support these organizations by volunteering, donating, and making informed consumer choices. Let’s not stand by while the sixth extinction unfolds on our watch.

The EarthRanger team welcomes new partnerships and complementary projects with integration potential. If you’re using Mapbox tools for conservation, connect with the Mapbox Community team to learn more about how we can support you.

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