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  • Did you know that elephants’ ears can be used to identify individuals living in the wild? Join this citizen science project to help recognise individual elephants by identifying their unique features from camera trap images. See how good your observation techniques are in this international project.

    Rights: Elephants For Africa

    Elephant ID

    This Zooniverse citizen science project run by Snapshot Safari aims to help generate an elephant database for Elephants for Africa.


    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully, and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Engage with science, Gather and interpret data

    Science focus: Ecology

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Scientists classify living things through careful observation.
    • Why careful observation in science is important.
    • Classification is an important skill for scientists.
    • Importance of observation in developing effective protocols for conservation.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Observation of the natural world is often a key aspect of both citizen science and online citizen science projects. This project will use the volunteer contributions to generate an accurate elephant ID database and machine learning algorithm (a form of artificial intelligence) capable of re-identifying elephant individuals in camera trap images.

    Rights: Sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Male elephant (Loxodonta africana)

    This male elephant (Loxodonta africana) is using his trunk to reach up to break off a branch for food in Botswana.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • develop their sorting, classification and observation skills
    • discuss the importance of observation in science
    • increase their awareness of their place as a global citizen and the value they can add to international projects
    • describe both the limitations and benefits of using images for classification
    • describe how science requires detailed observation
    • discuss how logged sightings are used by scientists.

    About Elephant ID

    Knowing elephants’ movements, social groups and lifespans is of great help in designing effective conservation programmes for African elephant populations. Unfortunately, this information can be very difficult to gather without the ability to repeatedly identify individual elephants (something usually done through mark-recapture).

    Researchers are looking to get answers to questions about the social requirements of male elephants. Who do they choose to hang out with? Do older males mentor the younger males? Male elephants range over a vast open landscapes, and researchers are constantly finding ‘new’ males. With the assistance of citizen scientists, they can not only speed up the identification process but it will also be more accurate.

    Using the System for Elephant Ear-Pattern Knowledge (SEEK) developed in South Africa, citizen scientists around the world can help build a database of individual elephants at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana, which is then studied by the team at Snapshot Elephants for Africa.

    Rights: Elephants For Africa

    System for Elephant Ear-Pattern Knowledge (SEEK)

    The System for Elephant Ear-Pattern Knowledge (SEEK) coding system was developed in South Africa. This graphic provides a summary of the various parts of an ID code.

    The Zooniverse project Elephant ID has four workflows under the classify tab. By answering questions about each elephant and tracing their unique ear outlines, you can make a significant contribution to elephant conservation.

    These are the workflows to help gather identifying information about an elephant:

    • General features – asks about the elephant’s tusks and ears.
    • Special features – asks about sex, age and unique characteristics.
    • Ear features – asks about tears and holes that might be present on an elephant’s ears.
    • Ear contour drawings – asks for a detailed drawing of the ear outline.
    Rights: Elephants For Africa

    Elephant’s ear outlined

    The drawing tasks in the Elephant ID contour drawing workflow help train a machine learning algorithm. This has been designed to re-identify individual elephants by using the contour of their ear edge as this is one of the most unique aspects you can see in the elephant images.

    Once there is a database of individual elephants, it can then be used to track elephants over time and across landscapes using the recorded images and information. The outcomes of this project will enable the team to extend their methods to other elephant populations within the Snapshot Safari network.

    Related content

    Observation plays a key role in science. See our article Observation and science – there are lots of activity ideas in the Related content box at the bottom. Our webinars Developing an eagle eye and Making sense of what we see provide additional help.

    Citizen science

    Instant Wild is a similar online citizen science project that uses hidden cameras to photograph or video animals in a range of worldwide locations. Citizen scientists label and categorise animals. The information helps the scientists who monitor the locations of different species.

    For local online citizen science projects logging the distribution of species, see eBird and iNaturalist. These enable you to log your data rather than asking you to interpret images captured by the project.

    Many online citizen science projects use citizen scientists’ data to help machine learning algorithms – see some examples here.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students.

    See these helpful webinars: Getting started with citizen science and Online citizen science.

    Useful links

    Read more about the development of the SEEK coding system: Kulits, P., Wall, J., Bedetti, A., Henley, M., & Beery, S. (2021). ElephantBook: A Semi-Automated Human-in-the-Loop System for Elephant Re-Identification. In Proceedings of the 4th ACM SIGCAS Conference on Computing and Sustainable Societies (COMPASS ’21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 88–98.

    Find out more about the work by Snapshot Safari – it needs citizen scientists from around the world to help identify wildlife caught on camera, focusing on eastern and southern Africa.


    Elephant ID is a project within the Zooniverse platform. Zooniverse, the world’s largest platform for people-powered research, is a collaboration between Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, the University of Oxford, the University of Minnesota, 2.5 million participants and hundreds of researchers around the world. For the full list of 80+ active Zooniverse projects, check out

      Published 21 November 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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