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The Purpose: Why Track Elephants With Satellites?

hard-to-find elephantWhile much research and attention has been focused on African elephants, very little is known about their Asian cousins. Being forest dwellers, Asian elephants are extremely difficult to study. Finding these 8,000-pound animals in the forest is more difficult than it sounds. The Asian jungles can be very hard to traverse and wild Asian elephants are reclusive, avoiding people whenever possible. In searching for elephants for more than two years in two of Myanmar's protected areas, Burmese and Smithsonian researchers sighted elephants only twice.

Because it is so difficult to observe and track individual elephants, scientists use a number of different methods in an attempt to estimate populations and gather information on behavior and movement patterns. One of the most promising of these new methods is the use of use of satellite tracking. Satellite collars allow researchers to receive precise locations of the elephant several times each day. This information can be used to determine patterns such as seasonal movements, home range and habitat use.

attaching a satellite collarTo attach a satellite collar, the collaring team must track down an elephant in the wild. The team tracks a herd using domestic elephants called koonkie, usually large adult males, which are trained to protect the team from attacks by wild elephants. One individual from the herd is then selected and anaesthetized with a dart. Once the elephant is asleep, the radio collar is quickly attached. An antidote wakes the elephant again in seconds, and the entire process takes less than 30 minutes from the moment the animal is darted.