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Tracking where the wild dogs are

The wild dog is one of the most misunderstood wild animals, and one of the most threatened. But technology is coming to the rescue, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK discovers on an expedition in the Kruger Park.

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Somewhere in the Kruger National Park, Cole du Plessis steps out of his vehicle, and slowly waves a contraption that looks like a TV antenna. He watches a small digital display on a handheld device. Suddenly, it pings. He moves around. It pings twice.

“We’ve got signal,” he says with quiet satisfaction.

But he’s not talking about a cellphone signal. He’s just used a receiver that picks up VHF signals – low-power, short-range radio waves. The transmitter is fixed to a tracking collar that has been attached to an African wild dog – South Africa’s most endangered large carnivore. Du Plessis works for the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), with the unique title of national wild dog meta population coordinator.

Cole’s focus on this single species is testament both to its endangered status – there are fewer than 500 surviving in South Africa – and the special nature of the animal. It’s one of the most socialised of all wild animals, with a highly structured social order, a collective style of hunting and an orderly approach to feeding on a kill, with the young always feeding first.

Somewhere in the Kruger Park, Cole du Plessis looks for a signal that will lead him to a pack of wild dogs (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

It is also one of the underdogs of the wild, with what the EWT calls “a mistaken reputation for attacking livestock”, which results in them being persecuted by humans as much as by lions. That’s aside from its susceptibility to poachers’ snares and even road accidents.

A combination of human and natural threats have resulted in the wild dog going extinct in 23 countries of Africa, and there are fewer than 5000 on the entire continent. That makes it even rarer than the rhino, which has become the poster animal for endangered wildlife.

Help is at hand, however, and technology is playing a major role in attempts to bring the species back from the brink of total extinction.

The EWT’s Kruger Rare Carnivore Program is a major project to investigate threats to wild dogs and factors affecting their numbers, as well as to track their movement in the Greater Kruger ecosystem.

Du Plessis previously worked with Wildlife ACT in kwaZulu-Natal, using telemetry to track and locate wild animals in smaller reserves. In smaller reserves, intensive monitoring was possible, as well as necessary, due to the proximity of local communities living around the reserves. The challenge in the Kruger Park is very different, largely due its size.

“In smaller reserves, VHF gives you the luxury of getting live tracking data every day,” says Du Plessis, who has a Masters degree in protected area management. “In the Kruger and in the Gorongoza in Mozambique, the rural nature of the area and the lack of road access means that, to find wild dogs, you have to use satellite collars with GPS devices fitted. So you have luxury of sitting on computers at home or the office and tracking them. The problem is, the more GPS data you want to download, the shorter the collar battery’s duration.”

He points out that animal tracking technology does not have the luxury of GPS tracking on cellphones, which have their batteries charged by human beings every day.

Wild dog tracking collar containing GPS and VHF transmitter. (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

“There are three categories of collar: VHS is very old tech but very reliable, and uses very high frequency radio telemetry.  GSM collars works off the cellphone network, have SIM cards built in, and relay information through cellular signals, based on proximity to a tower or handheld device. 

“The third collar is the best type, using GPS, and there are different types. We traditionally used Sirtrack, a New Zealand company which developed satellite tracking collars for wildlife. But they cost around R55-60 000, so we couldn’t use too many. In KZN and Kruger we use all these categories of tracker.”

Fortunately, tracking collars are now being manufactured locally by African Wildlife Tracking, at half the cost of the imported versions.

David Marneweck, manager of the EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme, points out that the objectives for putting on the collar determine what technology is used.

“The more often we ask the collar to relay data, the shorter the battery life. If we want data once a day, it lasts a year and a half. If you’re doing a coarse study on habitat use, once a day is fine, but if you want to vaccinate a population, once every six hours makes more sense, and battery life is affected accordingly.”

When Du Plessis or other members of the world dog project pick up a signal, they are able to home in on the general location of a wild dog pack. Usually, due to the cost and complexity of collaring a dog, the focus is on the alpha male in each pack. This means that the entire pack can be tracked, even if only one dog is collared.

Wild dog sedated, while its tracking collar is refitted. (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

The collars have to be checked regularly, and the batteries replaced, and this can only be done by darting the animal to sedate it. Sometimes, it can take several days to track down a single wild dog. In the process, however, the team regularly comes across animals in distress.

During an expedition with the wild dog tracking team coordinated by Vodacom, we receive an urgent call: members of the team have come across an elephant caught in a poacher’s snare. It’s a crude wire trap, but it has cut deep into the elephant’s leg. The Kruger Park’s state vets are called, and they are quickly on the scene to sedate the animal, remove the snare and treat its injuries.

State vets alerted by wild dog tracking team treat an elephant caught in a snare. (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

A few hours later, we finally find one of the elusive wild dogs. It is sedated, collar and battery checked, and after a few minutes the beautiful animal staggers to its feet and hobbles away.

Among the observers is John Mitchell, coach of the Vodacom Bulls rugby team. He is there with several of his players to see the tracking project in action. It is not a mere public relations exercise, though. Mitchell uses the wild dog as a metaphor for the strategies he has used to transform the team in the past year.

“They are not only underdogs, but they work as a team, win as a pack, and support each other even in most dangerous circumstances,” he explains. “Even if one is injured, it is never abandoned.”

Mitchell and his team are participating in the Vodacom Red Wild Dogs tour, part of a campaign that gives Vodacom Red clients a chance to win a once in a lifetime experience, based on their personal interests. The small group on this tour all combine a passion for rugby with a strong interest in wildlife.

Mitchell and the group watch with admiration as the tracking team and the vets, too, work in close cooperation. The vets and the wild dog tracking team have a symbiotic relationship, and it is clear that a deep mutual respect exists between them.

“Just implementing technology doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful,” says Marneweck. “You still have to use your expertise to achieve your goal, and to get wild dogs immobilised ethically and effectively within a reasonable period of time.”

Given the rapid advances in cellular, radio and satellite technology in just the last five years, one would expect tracking to become far easier and cheaper. Marneweck insits they have tried it all, and the advances that aid cellular connectivity still do not offer the range or battery efficiency that makes it practical for wildlife tracking across a vast area like the Kruger.

“Everything is based on battery life, and we’ve tried everything from kinetic technology to solar technology, like small solar panels. It’s a great idea, and we use it for vulture backpacks extremely successfully; it can last seven years. With dogs, however, they roll in the mud and get dirty. The panels fill with dirt very quickly and become useless.”

The benefits of tracking are massive.

“Without collars, wild dog conservation would not have been possible,” says Du Plessis. “Today is a case in point. It was so hard to find. Imagine if they didn’t have collars, it would have been impossible. As ugly as some people think collars are, wild dogs have been saved from snares by anti-snare plates fitted to the side of the collar, which absorbs the force of snare.”

A member of the wild dog tracking team examines the paws of a dog that is having its collar refitted. (Pic: Arthur Goldstuck)

The current project is a collaboration between SANparks, the state veterinary authority and the EWT. It started in July 2016, after an outbreak of canine distemper virus wiped pout a pack of wild dogs in the Kruger. The project is both a health survey and a targeted vaccination of wild dogs, to understand the threat and protect the animals from disease. 

Next week it will have been running for two years, with 100 dogs successfully vaccinated. That makes it the largest vaccination ever of wild dogs. It also means every pack of wild dogs in the Kruger National Park is collared for the first time in the park’s history.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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Here is 2019’s tech

From AI to flexible displays, this is the tech that will shape 2019, writes CY KIM, MD of LG SA

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2018 was incredibly exciting for the technology sector which has seen myriad advancements. These include the fundamentals of artificial intelligence (AI) being established, robots helping around the house and consumer electronic innovations such as TVs that are so thin, they might be mistaken for windows, or paintings.

2019 promises to be another significant year as people’s attitudes are changing and technology becomes embedded in our lives. Smart electronics manufacturers will ensure their plans for the future match evolving consumer needs with suitable technology.

We take a look at the biggest innovations for 2019 from AI to lightning-fast internet speeds and flexible viewing surfaces, and we shed some light on how these evolving technologies will impact on how we live and work.

AI will come of age

AI has experienced a marked increase in investments and according to Forbes, 80% of enterprises are investing in AI while 30% are planning to expand their AI investments in the next three years. It’s estimated that during 2017, venture, corporate and seed investors put about $3.6-billion into AI and machine learning companies.

This investment trend has given rise to innovation in deep learning products that have the potential to change the world for the better.

Yes, AI has been around since the 1950s, but its consumer benefits weren’t visible until recently and 2019 will be the year when AI starts to really take off and become a necessity, not just in the home, but in every facet of our lives.

The potential of AI is endless as this technology goes into everything from small watches to cars and even gigantic, connected smart cities. AI is also starting to find its way into TVs, washing machines, refrigerators, speakers, mobile phones and even air cons as products adapt to human behaviour.

Lightning-fast internet speeds

Faster internet speeds enable quicker response times for business tools that we all rely on to get the job done. It will increase the efficiency of workers and will provide reliable communication tools for companies that rely on remote workers.

Given that the so-called gig economy has grown exponentially in recent years, the expectation is that the evolving workforce will contain a higher percentage of employees, or contractors who do not work in a central office.

5G has the potential to change the world the way the internet did a few decades ago. The fifth generation of wireless technology will take internet connectivity to a new level as the internet of things (IoT), will bring about the potential for everything to be connected to everything.

However, 5G is not just about faster internet speeds. It will create new possibilities in numerous sectors, including medicine, transportation and manufacturing.

A smarter world through IoT and AI isn’t possible without 5G’s speed and capacity as the system is able to carry large numbers of connections simultaneously, and is therefore crucial to the development of smart cities, autonomous cars and smart homes.

Life-enriching smart technology

Much like technological innovations, consumer habits and preferences are changing drastically when it comes to home appliances and particularly, home entertainment.

Most consumers believe that advancements in home entertainment tech is life-enriching and that their life is better with the latest tech at their fingertips as it allows them to stay indoors and enjoy quality time with friends and family.

The value of home entertainment tech lies in how it allows loved ones to share experiences, thereby bringing them closer together, particularly during big events such as major sporting events and holiday celebrations.

The potential of flexible viewing surfaces will not only change home entertainment, but also marketing techniques in shopping malls, city centres and shop fronts. With the ability to curve around any environment, this technology creates the perfect platform for signage and consumer engagement that stands out from the crowd.

LG Electronics is an established market leader in innovation and has already started to incorporate these futuristic technologies into its products, which are designed to make consumers lives more convenient. We will continue to release amazing products that utilise smart tech to connect with consumers while staying ahead of the evolutionary curve.

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AI will power IoT

A simple gesture. A world built from accessible assets that drive human convenience and interaction. This is the future that’s powered by the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), two of the planet’s hottest topic trends right now for a very good reason. They work, says PHATHIZWE MALINGA, managing director of SqwidNet.

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They are also the fuel driving digital transformation in 2019. These are the technologies revolutionising performance, process and productivity. They are also transforming industry challenges across agriculture, retail, health and the public sector and are set to continue on this path well into 2019.

IoT has become the central nervous system of technology, allowing users to make intelligent decisions without feeling overwhelmed by choice or technology. Its ability to make life easier on every level – business, consumer, public sector – is the next step of the IoT evolution as it improves quality of life using AI and machine learning to analyse past behaviour and the insights it gleans to change the future.

This is the vision of the perfect IoT and AI future. The two technologies so intertwined and connected that they are influencing one another’s growth, development and adoption. IoT provides the ability to generate data from the changing circumstances of an asset and the infrastructure required to transport that data to where it can be accessed and analysed. Considering the sheer volume of data generated, it is impossible for a human being to analyse it at the speed required for real-time decision making. And this is why AI has become so important.

Today, it is possible to write code that can read the data generated by IoT and identify meaningful patterns at the right speed. This code can also be written in such a way that it can learn from the results it found the last time it ran. It is code that can learn, an algorithm that can self-educate. In this way, AI requires the power of IoT to generate the data it needs to learn and IoT needs AI to ensure that this data can be made meaningful, in time.

Over the next six to 12 months, it is very likely that the potential of IoT will see numerous small players emerge across all industries. They will be focused on servicing those who have yet to experience the full benefits of IoT and they will use technology to deliver solutions that are just ‘good enough’. This could potentially see the more established players being disrupted but most will likely be using the same technology to innovate and to create solutions that don’t just meet customer expectations but transcend them.  Of course, there will be some companies that will remain complacent and they will be the ones battling for customer attention out on the IoT playing field with the small, fresh players.

While on the topic of the customer, the next year is likely to introduce a lot more variety and scalability. The consistent drop in the cost of technology will allow for more choice in solution and capability and this will have a knock-on effect with regards to quality of life and the choices customers make when it comes to solution and service provider.

On the business frontier, the growth of IoT and AI offer an interesting bouquet of choices and opportunities. They allow for investment into solutions that generate better insights that, in turn, generate better products and services. Organisations that ignore this potential or think they can sidle on past what IoT and AI bring to the business are likely to be the ones that are left behind. It’s a cliché for a reason. A single look back at the companies that have emerged as big players in industries previously perceived as impenetrable proves the point. Innovation isn’t optional, it’s an essential part of business DNA and both IoT and AI are critical parts of the ability to innovate at speed, with relevance, and on time.

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