Recently, a herd of Asian elephants in Yunnan successfully crossed the Yuan River and completed the most important step of returning south. Since March 2020, the elephant herd has left their forest home, the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan, and embarked on a journey of moving north.
The Asian elephants' migration took a long time and a long journey. A 24-hour surveillance and sheltering has been given to them along their way, and the public also gave way to them, which not only allowed the cute wild elephants to quickly attract fans, but also demonstrated to the world a beautiful, harmonious picture of interactions between the Chinese people and the nature, humankind and animals.
The number of wild Asian elephants in China has grown from 190 in the 1980s to about 300 at present. The remarkable achievements in China's wildlife protection benefit from the extensive application of scientific and technological innovation in research and security, which can be seen from the elephants' journey of science, discovery and protection.
Innovative technology shows power
It became an internet sensation this June after a picture of a herd of elephants lying and sleeping rapped on social websites, triggering an upsurge in the following of these large animals by the whole people. This is a rare scene monitored by the Yunnan Provincial Forest Fire Brigade using drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras.
"In terms of safety monitoring, initially we mainly relied on manual labor, so the monitors were not only in danger of being injured by Asian elephants, but also tricky to achieve all-weather warning with information transmission being often delayed. Then, we began to cooperate with technology companies to use high-tech methods to improve monitoring and warning," said Guo Xianming, director of the Scientific Research Institute of the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve Management and Protection Bureau.
The wild Asian elephant monitoring and warning system in Xishuangbanna is China's first system of its kind established by the Bureau and Inspur Co., Ltd. Since the system was launched, it has provided 24-hour uninterrupted warning services through edge computing, cloud computing and AI. From April 2020 to July 2021, a total of 1.36 million images have been captured. It has sent more than 6,100 alerts, and averted over 500 human-elephant incidents.
"The integrated system relies on the support of patents," said Duan Guanghui, Inspur's algorithm engineer. Their research team built an AI high-speed recognition model based on the biological characteristics of Asian elephants, and filed some patent applications including one named "a real-time warning system based on YOLO v3 for Asian elephants". The model can accurately and quickly identify the elephants through incomplete and fuzzy images even in rainy days or at nights with severely insufficient light, according to Duan.
"At present, 99% of Asian elephants can be recognized by the system, and the previous number was 96%," said Guo. The Bureau will continue to cooperate with companies, universities, and research institutes including Inspur, Yunnan University, and Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences to develop more innovative equipment of its kind, according to Guo.
Harmony between humans and elephants
"As the number of wild Asian elephants in China continues to grow, the large-scale elephant migration may occur in the future," said Chen Mingyong, professor of Ecology and Environmental Science School, Yunnan University. He believes that Asian elephants once spread across vast areas from the Yangtze River Basin to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Migration is a normal behavior for wild elephants to survive and reproduce, which helps them find new habitats and exchange genes among herds.
In order to better protect China's wild Asian elephants and their habitats, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration of China and the Yunnan Government have begun to promote the construction of national parks with Asian elephants and their habitats as main protection objects. Chen believes that it is necessary to break through the current mechanisms of nature reserves to achieve a balance between ecological protection and economic and social development by formulating more scientific and long-term protection and management plan. In a bid to realize the human-elephant harmony, relevant laws and regulations should be improved to protect and restore wild Asian elephants' habitats by formulating technical regulations for habitat restoration and tightening scientific population control and management, according to Chen.
"The important factor to measure the level of regional ecology is the abundance of biodiversity and the complexity of the biological chain," said Guo. In a bid to protect wildlife and their habitats, we can both use scientific means to improve the monitoring level, and establish and improve a natural reserve system with national parks as the center. In parallel, relevant authorities should continue to carry out publicity and education and promote international cooperation and exchanges on wildlife protection, so that the concept of wildlife protection can be deeply rooted in the hearts of the people.