WWF uses new wireless technology to track elephants

A person carrying a monitor walks behind two elephants.

Wi-Fi makes it possible to connect from almost anywhere, whether it’s sending emails from home or posting on social media while you’re traveling. A new option for wireless communication technology, similar to Wi-Fi but using a range of different frequencies, is helping WWF and partners test new ways to track elephants. Through a pilot project that uses a special kind of long-range wireless technology in elephant collars, we’re testing how this new tech works with monitoring species over large and remote areas.

This new technology, called LoRaWAN, stands for ‘Long-Range, Wide Area Network’ and could really change the game for wildlife monitoring.

This private wireless network is designed for long-range, low-power data transmission between devices equipped with the long-range technology—in this case, collars called ElephantEdge, developed by SmartParks.

How do these collars differ from GPS collars?

Unlike traditional satellite GPS collars, the technology allows us to monitor the elephants much more frequently—every five minutes as opposed to only a few times a day. The batteries powering the collars have a lifespan of around seven years, compared to the one to two years typical of GPS collars, and they weigh less, reducing the burden on the individual elephant.

A person stands high up on a tower with a bright blue sky in the background

Setting up a long-range, wide-area network

Just like most communications networks, a physical infrastructure is first needed to transmit the data to the connected devices. Over two years, WWF and our partners, including Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Game Rangers International, built three towers that were equipped with gateways—similar to your Wi-Fi router at home that provided coverage for the collars over large parts of Kafue National Park and the adjacent community areas.

Once the network is set up, it can communicate with any enabled sensors or GPS trackers to send short messages over distances of more than 12 miles while conserving battery life. This makes it particularly useful for tracking wildlife movements.

Testing the collars

This pilot effort is tracking 10 young elephants that are part of Game Rangers International’s elephant rescue and release facility in Kafue National Park, Zambia. As Game Rangers International works to gradually reintegrate orphaned elephant calves back into the wild, the elephants spend less and less time at the facility. Testing the collars on these elephants that still rely on the facility but are free to explore during the day, can help keep them out of trouble and send alerts to rangers if an elephant gets too close to communities. Many of these calves found themselves at the rescue facility after losing their mothers to poaching and human-elephant conflict and so we hope to prevent their offspring from ending up here with technology like this.

“The elephants are free to come and go during the day but return to the facility at night,” said Eric Becker, WWF-US’s lead engineering specialist for wildlife conservation. “This gives us the opportunity to easily monitor and troubleshoot the collars for any tech issues or remove them if they’re impacting the elephants’ safety. It’s more cost-effective and allows us to address any problems much quicker than if we were using wild elephants.”

What’s next for using this technology to protect wildlife?

After monitoring and analyzing the data, we’ll assess what went well and what didn’t and adapt to determine the feasibility of using this technology for other wildlife, such as wild elephants or predators like lions, and wildlife in other regions.

For now, Game Rangers International can watch the movements of the elephants wearing the new collars and share feedback with us about maintaining the new technology.

Thanks to its versatility, long-range capabilities, and low power consumption, this is an exciting new technology solution for other conservation interventions. Tracking vehicles, managing human-wildlife conflict, and monitoring the environment, such as waterflows, weather, and fire are just a few potential uses. We plan to use the information gathered to improve management plans, identify wildlife corridors, and protect elephants and other wildlife in the area.

Learn more about WWF's work on wildlife conservation.