Elephant Research Facility Goes Solar
October 19, 2012

Team Makes Solar-Powered Elephant Research Facility In Africa

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

[ Watch the Video: Elephant Researchers Build Solar-Powered Research Camp ]

Elephant researchers have transformed an elephant field study camp in Namibia's Etosha National Park into a solar-powered facility.

The solar-powered research camp gives scientists an opportunity to observe, videotape and photograph wild elephants at the Mushara waterhole.

"One of the really special aspects of solar energy is that it allows us to be in this incredibly remote area that's closed to tourists and is off the grid," lead researcher Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, an instructor at the Stanford School of Medicine and a collaborating scientist at Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, said in a statement.

She said they get to watch elephant society unfold in a very quiet environment, with no generators, no people and no vehicles.

She has been studying elephant communication at Mushara for 20 years and was the first scientist to demonstrate that low-frequency calls produced by the giant animals generate powerful vibrations in the ground. These calls send out seismic signals that other elephants can feel and interpret through their trunks and feet.

Stanford undergraduate Patrick Freeman took hundreds of high-resolution photographs using a camera running on solar-powered batteries to identify individual elephants.

Solar energy was also used to operate a speaker system that delivered low-frequency sounds to elephants gathered at the waterhole.

The solar panels provide enough electricity to run a makeshift elephant dung laboratory, operate camera and editing equipment, and power two 12-volt refrigerators stocked with meat, dairy products and beer. The team is also using solar power to stay connected to the Internet.

The team installed a solar-powered electric fence around the perimeter of the area to keep away unwanted animals in the camp.

"It will just scare them away," researcher Tim Rodwell, a Stanford MD who teaches medicine at the University of California-San Diego, said in a statement. "A lion tried to touch the fence in the far corner. He only tried it once."

The solar panels and electrical system are dismantled at the end of the season when the researchers return back home.

The researchers plan to reconstruct the solar-powered camp at Mushara next year and resume their long-term elephant research project.

"Basically, all of our high-tech electronics are run off of a couple of solar panels, a couple of batteries and an inverter," she said in a statement. "The sun does the rest."