The Evolution of Elephant Identification
How to name and track an elephant
The Elephant Listening Project’s raison d’être is to study forest elephant behavior in order to conserve the beautiful and ecologically important species. Scientists interested in conservation science must study a species at the population level. Understanding the demography of a species — looking at reproduction, migration, aging, development, and death — gives insight to the challenges and threats facing a species survival. Understanding demography also requires observing the individuals of the population. Andrea Turkalo has spent over two decades in Dzanga bai studying the population of elephants in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, Central African Republic. The study “Long Term Monitoring of Dzanga Bai Forest Elephants” by Turkalo, Peter Wrege, and George Wittmeyer, details the insights of their work. Identifying, studying, and tracking individuals is important because “individual identification provides the highest quality monitoring data¹.” But identifying elephants is not an effortless process. Keeping track of individuals is a challenge that Andrea faced and that current ELP scientists are working to solve.
Andrea Turkalo first started studying forest elephants in 1992, before digital photography was ubiquitous. To identify and track elephants, she created identity cards. On the cards she drew distinguishing features and characteristics of the elephants like age, gender, tusk curvature and length, body and ear scarring, tail shape, and family associations. Andrea would choose a name at random for each individual elephant. For elephant mothers and offspring in family groups, she used a roman numeral naming protocol. For example, an elephant matriarch could be named Chelsea I (rather than just Chelsea to distinguish her from a lone female), her first offspring (male or female) would be Chelsea II, her second born would be Chelsea III, and so on. When a female offspring from Chelsea II becomes an adult and reproduces, her first offspring would be Chelsea II (II), her second would be Chelsea II (III), and so on. Eventually Andrea could recognize elephants on sight, much like you would recognize people you often see at work or school. Andrea noticed that elephants have distinct faces, and that families looked similar.
Manually keeping track of elephants understandably presented challenges. Drawings are inexact and subjective, many distinguishing features are ephemeral — tails can be pulled off, ear holes can change size or rip. The identity cards were time consuming to create and could easily be lost.
As technology developed, the identification of elephants drastically changed. Andrea scanned her cards and began taking photographs. For each elephant, she would take photos of the front of the head, and the left and right sides of the elephant’s head and body. Photos were catalogued according to gender, date, and which ears were marked. Digital photography created an instant, convenient, more exact, and inexpensive way to identify and keep track of each elephant.
Although Andrea is now retired she is working with the current ELP team who are continuing to identify and study the elephants in Dzanga bai. Andrea, ELP’s director Peter Wrege, Julia Gill and Matthias Körschens are working to develop more technologically advanced methods of individual monitoring. Peter Wrege and Julia Gill are working to create a database of some of the identified elephants. Matthias Körschens has developed a program using artificial intelligence that will work as facial recognition for elephants. Technology has and will continue to offer advancement to the study of forest elephants.