A new way of seeing elephants could help save their lives. That’s the idea behind an innovative pilot project in Dong Nai by Humane Society International and the Viet Nam government that uses images of elephant families from motion-triggered camera traps to catalogue the unique attributes of each animal, which will aid efforts to encourage human-elephant coexistence instead of conflict.

Viet Nam’s wild elephants have never been recorded in photos and video with this level of detail. Over the past two years researchers from HSI’s Viet Nam team have built a unique catalogue of the resident elephants, each with their own Vietnamese name and ID card of distinguishing features, behaviors and relationships with other herd members. For example, researchers now know where across three districts male adult elephants such as Nga Lech, Cat Tien and Dat Do enjoy roaming: throughout the Cat Tien National Park, the Dong Nai Nature Reserve and the La Nga State-owned Forestry Enterprise.

There are as few as 100 wild forest elephants left in Viet Nam, which makes mitigating human-elephant conflict essential to their conservation.

As part of this project, HSI researchers have also gathered data on incidents of human-elephant conflict. They discovered what we’ve long suspected to be true: Confrontational deterrent tactics such as throwing things at elephants, banging cooking utensils, deploying firecrackers and homemade explosives, or even setting poison, are not only detrimental to elephant welfare but can also make elephants more aggressive in the presence of people, which only further escalates cycles of conflict.

The new initiative aims to improve mitigation strategies by basing them on a deeper understanding of the wants, needs, habitats and habits of the elephants made possible thanks to science-based methods of gathering camera trap data, monitoring and documenting the elephants’ activities. Doing so in such a comprehensive way has already provided information that could be lifesaving over time.

Such interventions to increase understanding of elephants are both urgent and essential: Viet Nam’s population of wild forest elephants has dwindled to as few as 100 individuals, down from an estimated 2,000 four decades ago. With so few elephants left, even one fatality due to conflict can have disastrous consequences on the overall population’s survival. Whenever humane methods of mitigating conflict between wild animals and humans prove successful it’s a significant step toward the humane world we are trying to create, one in which wildlife populations need not be harmed or managed by cruel practices such as poisoning or culling, and one in which coexistence can be achieved.

In August, HSI and its government partners shared findings the pilot project at a two-day workshop in Dong Nai.

Last month, HSI and its government partners (Viet Nam’s Department of Forestry and the Dong Nai Provincial People’s Committee) formally announced the findings of the camera trap identification work, together with a related human-elephant conflict monitoring and distribution survey, at a two-day workshop in Dong Nai. Ten international experts joined with more than 50 Vietnamese delegates to share and discuss the best applicable practices for elephant protection within Viet Nam’s local contexts of small and fragmented elephant populations.

We hope the workshop inspires Viet Nam’s decision-makers to adopt the practices and strategies that show the greatest promise for Viet Nam’s national elephant conservation action plan, which will run from 2023 to 2032, and that the Dong Nai pilot project will lend itself to replication in other elephant range provinces across the country.

It’s heartening to think that this could be just the beginning of a more humane future for these elephants, and I’m inspired by the people who came together to create such an ingenious, scientific approach to protecting these animals, one rooted in curiosity and compassion.

Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.