Improving the precision and accuracy of animal population estimates with aerial image object detection

Jasper A.J. Eikelboom*, Johan Wind, Eline van de Ven, Lekishon M. Kenana, Bradley Schroder, Henrik J. de Knegt, Frank van Langevelde, Herbert H.T. Prins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

78 Citations (Scopus)


Animal population sizes are often estimated using aerial sample counts by human observers, both for wildlife and livestock. The associated methods of counting remained more or less the same since the 1970s, but suffer from low precision and low accuracy of population estimates. Aerial counts using cost-efficient Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or microlight aircrafts with cameras and an automated animal detection algorithm can potentially improve this precision and accuracy. Therefore, we evaluated the performance of the multi-class convolutional neural network RetinaNet in detecting elephants, giraffes and zebras in aerial images from two Kenyan animal counts. The algorithm detected 95% of the number of elephants, 91% of giraffes and 90% of zebras that were found by four layers of human annotation, of which it correctly detected an extra 2.8% of elephants, 3.8% giraffes and 4.0% zebras that were missed by all humans, while detecting only 1.6 to 5.0 false positives per true positive. Furthermore, the animal detections by the algorithm were less sensitive to the sighting distance than humans were. With such a high recall and precision, we posit it is feasible to replace manual aerial animal count methods (from images and/or directly) by only the manual identification of image bounding boxes selected by the algorithm and then use a correction factor equal to the inverse of the undercounting bias in the calculation of the population estimates. This correction factor causes the standard error of the population estimate to increase slightly compared to a manual method, but this increase can be compensated for when the sampling effort would increase by 23%. However, an increase in sampling effort of 160% to 1,050% can be attained with the same expenses for equipment and personnel using our proposed semi-automatic method compared to a manual method. Therefore, we conclude that our proposed aerial count method will improve the accuracy of population estimates and will decrease the standard error of population estimates by 31% to 67%. Most importantly, this animal detection algorithm has the potential to outperform humans in detecting animals from the air when supplied with images taken at a fixed rate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1875-1887
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number11
Early online date2 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


  • computer vision
  • convolutional neural network
  • deep machine learning
  • drones
  • game census
  • image recognition
  • savanna
  • wildlife survey


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