06-19 elephants crossing railway tracks

[Image above] The use of advanced monitoring systems can help prevent train collisions with elephants. Credit: Incredible Dooars, YouTube

In mid-July 2023, members of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network noticed something unusual: Seismometers had detected signals equivalent to a magnitude 2.3 earthquake on the nights of July 22 and 23. The earth itself did not cause this extreme shaking—more than 70,000 Taylor Swift fans at the Eras Tour in Seattle’s Lumen Field did.

While humans generally require a “world-shaking” event, such as a pop star concert or sports event, to register on the Richter scale, other animals generate seismic waves on a daily basis. Specifically, elephants rely on their heavy feet to help send and detect vibrations over long distances, and even just their snorts and grunts can generate very low-frequency signals.

Researchers have tapped into this “ground-shaking” potential by using earthquake-monitoring tools to surveil elephants at a distance, which could help in efforts to prevent poaching. However, conventional tools such as seismographs are not cheap, so creating a network to cover the hundreds of miles over which elephants roam is not feasible. Instead, the emerging field of distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) may offer an economical way to track elephants.

Unlike traditional earthquake-monitoring networks, which rely on discrete sensors measuring at predetermined points, DAS systems are based on fiber-optic cables, which have a high sensitivity to deformations. This sensitivity allows the fiber-optic cables to serve as sensing elements and enable continuous, real-time measurements over large distances.

Credit: Science Animated, YouTube

Researchers have explored using networks of “dark” (unused) fiber-optic cables as DAS systems to monitor earthquakes both on and offshore. Now, just last week, Austria-based information provider Sensonic announced they plan to help keep Asian elephants safe using DAS through a multimillion-dollar contract with Indian Railways.

In India, death from train collisions is the second-highest cause of unnatural elephant deaths, with more than 200 elephants killed this way in the past 10 years. As elephant deaths on and near the country’s railway tracks continue to rise, railway companies are starting to explore the use of advanced monitoring systems to prevent unnecessary deaths.

In Sensonic’s case, the company plans to deploy approximately 1,200 km (746 miles) of fiber-optic cables around roughly 400 km (249 miles) of railway tracks within the Indian Railways’ East Coast network, which spans the states of Orissa and Jharkhand. This deployment includes the installation of 20 strategically positioned sensing units and supporting equipment, which will use artificial intelligence to monitor and analyze real-time data and then send alerts to railway staff.

“Our elephant detection system offers a comprehensive solution that safeguards both elephants and train operations,” says Deep Desai, managing director of Sensonic India, in the press release. “By preventing collisions, we can significantly reduce the loss of life and minimize disruptions to railway operations, ultimately benefiting wildlife, passengers, and local communities.”

Learn more about Sensonic’s DAS system at this link.