Google Maps virtual feature to help conserve elephants in Kenyan park

Google has launched Kenya’s first virtual tour of a game reserve at the the Samburu National Park through its Street View feature to boost wildlife conservation efforts. Elephants are a key tourist attraction in Kenya but are also a prime target for poachers who kill them for their tusks. Experts say that more than 30,000 elephants are killed every year in Africa.

SAMBURU, KENYA (SEPTEMBER 15, 2015) (REUTERS) – Kenya’s Samburu national game reserve is home to a wide range of wildlife – lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and other species freely roam its vast plains.

Over 300 kilometers north of the capital, Nairobi, Samburu – like most parks in the country is a draw for tourists but it also a target area for poachers especially interested in elephant and rhino tusks.

Google has launched their Street View technology in the Samburu park to help in conservation efforts, protect animals from poachers and to give animal lovers a chance to take virtual tours of the reserve.

Street View is a product that enables users to navigate images on the ground created from a series of photographic images.

The Samburu initiative run by Google and Save the Elephants covers 165 square kilometres of the conservancy and was filmed in February this year.

“Tracking them, with the help of Google earth, we get to see the whole range and then we get to understand what elephants need to survive and that’s powerful information if we are going to try and secure elephants a future in Africa. That’s information that we need because we need to take that information to government planners, TO community planners, and county governments and say — this is where elephants roam, these are the corridors they use, these are the areas they feed in during different times of the year. Let’s keep these areas protected from development, and then develop elsewhere and then in future we can have a modern Kenya, with elephants and without conflict,” said Frank Pope, chief operations officer for Save the Elephants.

Poaching has risen in recent years across sub-Saharan Africa where well-armed criminal gangs have killed elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns that are often shipped to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.

A 2014 U.N. and Interpol report estimated that about 20,000 to 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa every year, out of a total population of as many as 650,000.

Kenya has emerged as a major transit route for ivory destined for Asian markets from eastern and central Africa.

African nations are working on efforts to improve customs services and tackle corruption, which could help reduce the supply of poached animals to international markets.

Kenya is already using high-tech surveillance equipment including drones to help fight elephant and rhino poachers and has introduced stiffer penalties for offenders.

It is hoped that Google Street View will make surveillance of the country’s wildlife more efficient.

“When the technology came up and were able to get a GPS collar, then we didn’t have Google track or Google map tracks, and the challenge there was, we had to go ourselves very close to the elephant, it doesn’t matter where the elephant was, what situation the elephant is, you had to go to the elephant, you know very close to the elephant, try and download the information, and often these links break because you know this elephant is moving the whole time,” said David Daballen, the senior field officer at Save the Elephants.

This is the first national park in Kenya that can be accessed with a virtual view.

Poaching is harming tourism, a major foreign exchange earner. Authorities say they hope the technology will help market the country’s natural beauty, culture and diverse wildlife.

Google say they hope it will draw more attention and support to Kenya’s battle with poaching and the need to protect its elephants.

“It’s really to promote and bring greater awareness to conservation. These efforts have been long been happening in Kenya here in Samburu with save the elephants, and now we want to bring that knowledge of the elephants, the research that has been done, the great work of conservation, we want to bring that information now to the world,” said Frazana Khubchandani, marketing manager for Google Kenya.

Experts estimate Africa’s elephant population has fallen by more than 60 percent over the past decade. More than 30,000 elephants are killed every year on the continent.