To better understand how animals live in the wild, scientists employ a variety of tools to monitor them. Monitoring is tricky because many animals migrate across vast areas of land, and it's not always easy to tell individuals apart.
So, scientists use radio and satellite collars to help them locate individuals and herds. The data from animal tracking is not only used to understand how the animals live, but also to help scientists understand where to establish protected areas as well as help build awareness among communities about the status of endangered species.
During our trip to the Okavango Delta, we had the opportunity to learn about how researchers use collaring methods to track two of Africa's endangered species: African elephants and wild dogs.
CI biologist, Mike Chase, made it clear that collaring elephants is serious business. The data from his research is important in
||"At any time, he can download Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to find out where his elephants have been."|
understanding the species, but that doesn't overshadow the need to be careful not to endanger the life of the individual or its herd. So a veterinarian is always on hand to administer the elephant tranquilizer and monitor its health.
Mike locates a herd by air, surveying a region in a small prop plane. Once a herd is located, he identifies an appropriate mature female - one that doesn't have any calves. Mike notifies the veterinarian, hovering above in a helicopter, who "darts" the cow with a tranquilizer gun.
The crew of volunteers races to the scene as the veterinarian lands nearby. While the elephant isn't knocked out immediately, it's important to make sure that she doesn't lie down in a way that would prevent her from breathing. They also don't want her to overheat in the African sun, so the team pours water over her ears to keep her cool.
While Mike puts the collar on the elephant, the veterinarian takes blood and skin samples and monitors its stress level. Once everyone is done, the veterinarian administers the antidote to reverse the effects of the tranquilizer and everyone moves out of the area. If everything runs smoothly, this relatively routine procedure takes less than hour.
Mike's collars are outfitted with high-tech transmitters that send a constant stream of data to a fixed-orbit satellite. At any time, he can download Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to find out where his elephants have been. Using this information, scientists hope to establish a new protected area that will accommodate the space that these migratory giants need to roam freely.
African Wild Dogs
The basics of collaring wild dogs are the same as collaring elephants.
||"By collecting this data, they hope to better understand what it will take to protect the precious few that remain of this highly endangered species."
What sets wild dog collaring apart from Mike's research with elephants is how the dogs are monitored once they've been collared. Because the transmitters only emit short-range radio signals, Tico and his assistants mainly use the tracking devices to locate the animals so they can observe them directly.
Two members of the pack are collared. Even though one collar is sufficient, Tico and his team collar two dogs in case one dies or disperses. Matt Swarner, a researcher at the camp, described the need for the second collar: "Collared individuals also help record the creation of newly-formed packs. When dispersing groups include a collared dog, we're able to continue tracking them into their new territory."
To locate the dogs, Tico surveys a wide area by plane constantly listening for the faint clicks transmitted by the collars. From the air, he can only establish the general location of a pack, so it's necessary to do the rest of the job on land. Back on the ground he starts the whole process again until he zeros in on the pack.
Collaring wild animals and monitoring them up close gives researchers the opportunity to understand how different species live. "We go out and find dogs to see who's there, who may have disappeared, who's hurt, (and) who's pregnant," explained Matt.
Matt records the data collected from monitoring wild dogs, along with 15 years of Tico's research, into a database. With a few clicks of the mouse, he can call up any dog they monitor and tell you all kinds of interesting information about each animal from its physical characteristics, to its family history. By collecting this data, they hope to better understand what it will take to protect the precious few that remain of this highly endangered species.
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Update: Much of Mike's work researching elephants is supported by generous volunteers who have made extraordinary contributions to the project. Among the most committed was Player Crosby, who loaned his plane, his piloting skills and a great amount of time and energy to the elephant research program.
We're sad to report that Player recently died in an airplane accident near his home in Massachusetts. We wish to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family.
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