Satellite data to track wildlife: Elephants in space

Threatened by habitat loss, poaching, pollution and other factors, wildlife species across the globe are declining in number at an alarming rate. Scientists from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York City have been monitoring endangered wildlife populations for more than 100 years. For decades, traditional capture and tag methods have been a primary tool, but they are not the most efficient when dealing with large animals and animals in remote locations. The WCS's recent use of satellite technology, sponsored by NASA, may revolutionize the way endangered wildlife in remote areas of the world are counted and monitored.

Using cameras fixed to an orbiting satellite 450 kilometers (280 miles) overhead, WCS scientists say that they will be able to take high resolution photographs of specific areas to determine the wildlife composition within that area. They will then compare images from different dates to see changes, either population growth or decline, over time. The satellite, called Quickbird, is owned by DigitalGlobe, a private company.

To test their proposed use of satellite images, WCS scientists recently counted their own animal populations. High-tech maps produced by Quickbird, which orbited the Bronx Zoo in November 2004, have revealed incredibly clear images of everything from giraffes to Thomson's gazelles. According to members of the team, the detail of the images taken from so far away has been particularly impressive. "We're counting individual gazelles in the zoo's African Plains exhibit from a satellite 280 miles up," said Dr. Scott Bergen. "That's like standing on top of the Empire State Building and spotting a deer in Maine."

Preliminary results of the study have left scientists hopeful that the technology can be used to monitor endangered wildlife populations that live in hard-to-reach locations, saving them time and money while saving the animals the hardship of being captured and tagged. '"/>

Contact: Katie Lorentz
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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