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Tags that protect, as well as track, endangered carnivores

  • Modular tracking collars may make updates to tracking electronics more affordable.
  • Researchers working with tech designers should define their needs specifically to ensure new devices meet your mission and criteria.
  • Consistent communication with local ranchers is paramount when addressing human-wildlife conflict.

Painted dogs, also known as African wild dogs, are among Africa’s most endangered species. Habitat fragmentation and conflict with livestock and farmers are partly to blame — human encroachment across the dogs’ range has shown no signs of stopping. However, every dog has its day—and it seems Greg Rasmussen is the one to give it to them.

Greg Rasmussen, founder of the Painted Dog Conservation Project (PDC) in Zimbabwe, now leading the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT), let the wild dogs have their day when he decided these endangered animals needed local support to survive. With snares, shootings, and road kills causing 95% of painted dog mortalities in the area in the early 1990s and little public support for conserving a species called wild dogs, Rasmussen was determined to give these dogs a better name – and a chance for survival. He tracks their movements to better understand their habitat use and population dynamics and has added special features to his tracking collars to mitigate rancher-dog conflict.

WildTech interviewed ‘top dog’ Rasmussen to learn about some of the technological challenges and needs he has faced as a painted dog conservationist.

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Painted dogs defend their kill against a hungry yet outnumbered hyena in Botswana. Photo credit: George Powell

You study an elusive species in rugged terrain. What are the biggest challenges that the project is facing and how might technology address them?

One of the greatest challenges of field technology has been the reliability and cost of tracking units. It has just been obscene. You have a collar that costs you US $2000 to $4000, so depending on the amount of money you have, you can only deploy one and put the animal through the stress of collaring — then the collar decides to fail. The software company says ‘we have tested this,’ but we actually end up being the guinea pigs.

Tag weight is also an issue, especially for species with a high metabolic rate. The analogy I use is, give an athlete Wellington boots and ask them to run a 100 meter sprint.

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Painted dog ready to run in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

The other challenges are the ability for tags to collect a vast amount of data within the [limited] framework of the batteries that are available. Battery technology itself is letting us down…It’s getting better but has a long way to go before it’s right. I think we often look at battery weight, but ultimately we’ve also got to look at the actual battery usage [i.e. energy consumption]. In most of Europe, anytime someone puts a nuclear power station up, everyone says ‘we don’t want a power station here’. But if you said to all those same people ‘well how about switching off all your lights and using your power more appropriately?’ Then you wouldn’t need that station and we could shut a few down instead of opening up more. Similarly, with tags we need to incorporate such smart technology and save power.

We are also realizing that, more and more, we need fine-scale data [on animal movements] to understand some of the bigger conservation questions, and it’s great because now we can say that we’ve got the entire life history of A, B, C, D, E. But we can also have a data set that our computing power isn’t ready to handle.

Is data management one of your problems now?

No, not at the moment. Our new tags may well pose this issue. However, the beauty is when you do get incredible data sets–when you can say, ‘I know exactly what the study animal did.’ It’s ultimately going to assist us and let us know what our minimum sample rate needs to be. Once you take a data set, and then through bootstrapping you can slowly start to say, ‘I’m going to sample half, does that work? I’m going to sample half again.’ That will ultimately lead to these data sets where you only need to take a data point every second, minute, two minutes, 10 minutes or even less to get the same result.

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A successful hunt – a painted dog carries a baby impala. Photo credit: George Powell

How have you seen technology evolve?

Happily, in many ways, technology has come a long way, even in just the capacity to give a decent presentation — from projectors where you put one slide in and before it went up in smoke, you pushed it across and then put another slide in, to the ability to create multi-media presentations and share information.

Also, collar technology has at least gone into the realm of being able to use satellites. But then it comes with extra data layers and an extra $2,000 on the price of the collar. Especially with trans-boundary work, which is something I am very focused on, we can start to answer questions we were never able to before. GPS data alone has moved the goalposts of what we are now able to do.

Cell phones, as well, have allowed ranchers with painted dogs in their yards to call authorities and figure out what action to take. Then within 24 hours the problem has been solved. Technology as simple as that can change and support conservation.

Painted dog wearing a protective collar. Photo credit: Painted Dog Research Trust

Is responding to ranchers a large part of your work?

Yes. Ultimately, communication is paramount. There is nothing worse than communication breakdown, especially if there is a potential conflict situation. If you have the ability to communicate effectively, that does make a big difference – even where two parties are on opposite sides of an issue, communication is key.

Communication is one way we integrate ranchers into our work–and the fact that I didn’t send them a questionnaire but actually spoke with them face-to-face. In spite of even our best technology, there are parameters we will never be able to get from machines.

You have adapted long-lasting VHF tracking collars to improve the survival rates of the dogs.  Can you tell us more about these adaptations?

We have pursued several new ideas to improve pack survival. Packs that use the main roads have been fitted with retroreflective collars, which have helped to reduce road mortalities substantially.  We put metal anti-snare plates into the collars of vulnerable packs, which has already saved a number of dogs, and it helps maintain the integrity of packs by keeping the individuals together.

Dogs living around ranchlands have had color-coded collars which enabled the farmers to see for themselves how nomadic the dogs are and how low their numbers are in a given area. This work helped stop the shooting of dogs and encouraged dialogue with ranchers, and the dogs responded. Packs recolonized ranchlands and even started breeding there.

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Greg Rasmussen and team monitor and tag a painted dog. Photo credit: Greg Rasmussen

Tell us about your new tracking tags – will they communicate with satellites, and if not, how would you find the animals when they disperse? 

This is the burning issue. With satellite collars; it literally does give you where that animal is anytime during the day, but the tags are brutally expensive and last a short while. Ultimately, we need to use  unmanned data acquisition units (UAVs) to see where the animals are and this means some serious flying will have to be done from time to time. But then we can collect tracking tag data from the air, and it may well be that we end up with balloons in different places — our own permanent stations that will pick up identity and location information from any animal that comes within a certain range of them.

So, you’re trying to avoid the outer space communication.

If we can. That’s when another $1,000 is thrown onto the price of the tag. The way that we’re designing this new collar package—which is for wild dogs, but of course it can be adapted for any species—is that we will only have four power terminals (two positive, two negative) and then we’ll just literally have something the size of a tiny chip that will be bolted on as we deploy it. And the nice thing about it will be that, suddenly our tag guy gets new bright ideas, and rather than ‘ugh I already bought ten of those bloody collars’, I just need to replace that tiny little piece.

Also in the works , whilst there might be one module programmed to just get a fix, the plan is to also get data from other pack members. In social animals at least you can spread the load amongst the collars.

Without the benefit of the consistent presence of the satellite, how will you make sure your data are not biased by issues like bad weather when the drones can’t fly?

All the data are going to be stored on board. We’re not sure yet, but certainly to get all of the data, we may have to rely on getting the collar back. And this is where the two things are working hand in hand, how cheaply can we transmit the data packages — if it’s got to transmit data packages up to a satellite, this is why the satellite costs so much and uses so much battery. To transmit data only to a thousand feet, it may well be that for the same number of joules of battery power, we can receive considerably more data packets.

You need to have teams for these — there’s someone conceptualizing the boards, and there’s software engineers coming in to write all the code.

Greg Rasmussen tagging painted dog_SusanYoung
Greg Rasmussen and team tagging a painted dog. Photo credit: Susan Young

How did you build your relationship with the tech developers, and how much do you explain to them what you need, what specifications you need versus them saying ‘this is what we can do.’

I think what we have to say is, ‘This is my target, this is what I really want to achieve. If I want a collar that’s 200 grams, then I’m going to say who’s going to put out for a collar that’s 200 grams.’ Some of the most successful companies have always been those that have adopted that process, to say, ‘I want a telephone that’s going to weigh be half the current weight, and that’s the important fact.’

With collars, biologists often ask each other, ‘what are you using? what are you using?’, and there are forums out there, but there’s no one product that’s standing head and shoulders above the others. We all know that these things can be built.  I don’t know what technology the military has – but we all know that military has got stuff that we would die for.

So, any advice for people trying to talk to the tech developers?

I think this is where collaboration comes in. I find that I’ll post something on Canid Specialist Group and everyone can at least say, ‘well you know, you’re wasting your time there’ because, ultimately, we all at some point sadly end up barking up the same tree, and no one has actually reported failure. In fact, if we had a system where we could report failure more frequently than success, which is of course the more likely, we would all be publishing a lot more. Just because a non-significant result is there, it doesn’t mean it’s not exciting — it’s a result. Or we tried A, B, C and D, and they didn’t work, really and truthfully.

Have you thought of scaling up production to lower cost of this collar you are developing?

If this tag design works, our vision is that it will be as close to open source as you can be. It will be more like a non-profit collar model. So other researchers can use it for their various projects.

What is the timeline for the technology you’ve been working on? 

Like everything, there are challenges. We predicted we might be ready this year, but the domestic dog testing part of the project took a lot longer. It’s like any project, and human nature — when one side of it starts to slow down, the project team thinks ‘well I’m not going to continue building a tag because the domestic dog team is behind schedule, so therefore I can invest my time elsewhere.’ That’s where, ideally, good project management comes in. We are 12 months behind, but we now think that in this next 12 months, we’ll see the first one out there.

It would be great if there were a database of big companies with technical skills, like a “LinkedIn” for technical expertise where you can type in the key words ‘someone interested in doing…’ and then it is presented on your desk and if you’re a software engineer you go, ‘why I would love to help- this is a cool project to work on’. Right now, it’s part luck that I find the people that I find…you can’t stop searching – I’d love a pool of people saying “this is my expertise, and I’m available.”

If you had an unlimited budget and a team of engineers, what technology or features would you like to add — either to your technology that you’re already trying to make or something new?

I would like to see something where data from these collars could be available to everyone — not quite real time but using wireless transmission….Technology is moving in the right direction, where maybe a tag can tell us when it is crossing a border. In my case, we want the tag to tell us when a dog has been in a snare, when the dogs have crossed an international boundary, or if we’ve had a dispersal and to bring in factors like geo-fencing where the right people are automatically alerted [to dogs’ proximity], whether it is on their cell phone or some other method. Then we could actually respond in real time to what’s going on. Currently, the ability for us to respond in real time is a serious challenge, and all too often if there is a problem, by the time we get there it is often too late, as in the case of snared dogs.

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Painted dog pack on the hunt in South Africa. Photo credit: Bart Swanson, under creative commons

Do you have any tips for aspiring field conservationists?

I ultimately feel that, whilst you ultimately will be a master of one trade, you have to learn to be a jack of many trades as you possibly can. Because otherwise, to do due diligence to conservation biology and ecology, we have to be able to think in this vast sphere of stuff coming in from all directions rather than looking down a tunnel, saying ‘that’s my focus, my vision’. If you want to move forward, know as much about as many different species as possible, whether they be plants or animals, because ultimately it starts to help you make some of these connections that are so brutally complex. My analogy, anyways, is as you come out of an undergrad program, you are understandably and  justifiably proud of yourself, but at the end of the day I suspect that, relating it to language, you’ve probably only learned the A, B, C of the English language.

Have other biologists worked with tech developers to design research tools? If you have comments or questions regarding tool development for carnivore conservation projects, please leave a comment or visit the forum!

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