Infrared Technology: From the Cold War to the Fight for Elephants

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A thermal image taken in a clearing at Dzanga Bai, Africa by ELP’s cameras. This image helped researchers better understand the elephant behavior of ‘mating pandemonium.’

Since the Cold War in the ’60s, infrared (IR) technology has evolved from a high-tech military gadget to a commercial product. Previously used in goggles for night detection during wartime, infrared technology is now utilized in many different sectors including archaeology, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medicine¹. IR allows observation that the human eye cannot, and has allowed advancement by giving a new perspective. One fascinating use of IR is in the thermal imaging of animals, especially those that are endangered or difficult to observe during the day (perhaps due to a nocturnal nature or shy behavior). As ELP’s main focus is the African forest elephant, we’ll take a look at how IR thermal imaging has non-intrusively benefited this endangered species as well as enhanced our understanding of forest elephants.

The African forest elephant’s nature makes it a particularly good fit for this kind of technology. Elusive and hidden by the dense rain forests of the Congo Basin, the forest elephant is difficult to observe. Since 1990, ELP has used acoustic means to ‘electronically eavesdrop’ on the species, using roars and rumbles to categorize communication and gunshots to detect human threat². Acoustic means allow 24/7 monitoring and hours of audio have shown that activity is distributed equally throughout the day. However, more activity was detected by recording units at forest clearings at night (with 79% of elephant visitations at these sites occurringat night); while African forest elephants spend most of their time in the forest, they will often enter a clearing site at night to scavenge for minerals or socialize. Unprotected by foliage, elephants can be observed in a clearing and their behavior matched with audio recordings! IR thermal imaging allows ELP’s team to capture night footage to allow further analysis of elephant behavior. With this technology, one fascinating discovery has been an increase in olfactory behavior (e.g. using trunks to sniff mating sites) as well as an increase in vocalizations after mating events³.

Besides advancing wildlife research, thermal imaging can also be applied for veterinary purposes. In a 2005 study conducted by Paignton Zoo in southwest London, infrared cameras were placed in certain exhibits¹. Thermal images were taken of Paignton’s African elephant and it was discovered that his right foot radiated more heat than normal. Oftentimes, elephants favor one foot over the other and this can be problematic in the UK’s damp conditions that promote foot and nail problems. Veterinarians were able to identify this problem before it became actualized. IR provides a useful tool in gauging problems with blood circulation or inflammatory responses from irritated tissue within animals, where even the slightest increase in surface temperature is captured by sensitive thermal imaging. Though this study focuses primarily on zoo inhabitants, IR can also be used for wildlife veterinary purposes.

Another creative facet for thermal imaging has been in elephant conservation. Four thermal imaging cameras were proposed in 2017 to be set up by railroad tracks in Madukkarai, Thadagam, and Marudhamalai to monitor elephant movement⁴. Elephants normally leave the forest at night and this can be dangerous in landscapes with human expansion. In these Indian cities and suburbs,there have been incidents of elephants who wandered onto train tracks and were hit. The driver often did not see the elephant crossing until it was too late. Information from thermal imaging cameras can be sent to locomotive drivers when an elephant is in the area; thus the drivers may proceed with more precaution. Night cameras such as these are useful in settings with poor visibility, allowing humans to avoid dangerous situations and to non-intrusively help elephants when necessary.

Thermal imaging has had many useful applications since its origins. It has provided technology that has been creatively adapted for the use of animal researchers, veterinarians, and conservationists. Yet, the possibilities are infinite — who knows what other functions thermal imaging will serve in the future? I’m sure no one during the Cold War could have seen just how beneficial IR would be.

Works Cited

¹Lavers, C., Franks, K., Floyd, M., & Plowman, A. (2005). Application of remote thermal imaging and night vision technology to improve endangered wildlife resource management with minimal animal distress and hazard to humans. Journal of Physics: Conference Series15, 1, 207.

²Wrege, Peter. (2012). Forest elephant chronicles. American Scientist, 100, 417.

³Thompson, M.E. et. al. (December 15, 2014). African forest elephant (loxodonta Africana cyclotis) vocal behavior and its use in conservation(Master’s thesis).

⁴TNN. (2017). Thermal imaging cameras to be set installed to track elephants at night. The Times of India. Retrieved from

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