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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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Millennials turning 40: NOW will you stop targeting them?

It’s one of the most overused terms in youth marketing, and probably the most inaccurate, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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One of the most irritating buzzwords embraced by marketers in recent years is the term “millennial”. Most are clueless about its true meaning, and use it as a supposedly cool synonym for “young adults”. The flaw in this targeting – and the word “flaw” here is like calling the Grand Canyon a trench – is that it utterly ignores the meaning of the term. “Millennials” are formally defined as anyone born from 1980 to 2000, meaning they have typically come of age after the dawn of the millennium, or during the 21st century.

Think about that for a moment. Next year, the millennial will be formally defined as anyone aged from 20 to 40. So here you have an entire advertising, marketing and public relations industry hanging onto a cool definition, while in effect arguing that 40-year-olds are youths who want the same thing as newly-minted university graduates or job entrants.

When the communications industry discovers just how embarrassing its glib use of the term really is, it will no doubt pivot – millennial-speak for “changing your business model when it proves to be a disaster, but you still appear to be cool” – to the next big thing in generational theory.

That next big thing is currently Generation Z, or people born after the turn of the century. It’s very convenient to lump them all together and claim they have a different set of values and expectations to those who went before. Allegedly, they are engaged in a quest for experience, compared to millennials – the 19-year-olds and 39-olds alike – supposedly all on a quest for relevance.

In reality, all are part of Generation #, latching onto the latest hashtag trend that sweeps social media, desperate to go viral if they are producers of social content, desperate to have caught onto the trend before their peers.

The irony is that marketers’ quest for cutting edge target markets is, in reality, a hangover from the days when there was no such thing as generational theory, and marketing was all about clearly defined target markets. In the era of big data and mass personalization, that idea seems rather quaint.

Indeed, according to Grant Lapping, managing director of DataCore Media, it no longer matters who brands think their target market is.

“The reason for this is simple: with the technology and data digital marketers have access to today, we no longer need to limit our potential target audience to a set of personas or segments derived through customer research. While this type of customer segmentation was – and remains – important for engagements across traditional above-the-line engagements in mass media, digital marketing gives us the tools we need to target customers on a far more granular and personalised level.

“Where customer research gives us an indication of who the audience is, data can tell us exactly what they want and how they may behave.”

Netflix, he points out, is an example of a company that is changing its industry by avoiding audience segmentation, once the holy grail of entertainment.

In other words, it understands that 20-year-olds and 40-year-olds are very different – but so is everyone in between.

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

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Robots coming to IFA

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Robotics is no longer about mechanical humanoids, but rather becoming an interface between man and machine. That is a key message being delivered at next month’s IFA consumer electronics expo in Berlin. An entire hall will be devoted to IFA Next, which will not only offer a look into the future, but also show what form it will take.

The concepts are as varied as the exhibitors themselves. However, there are similarities in the various products, some more human than others, in the fascinating ways in which they establish a link between fun, learning and programming. In many cases, they are aimed at children and young people.

The following will be among the exhibitors making Hall 26 a must-visit:

Leju Robotics (Stand 115) from China is featuring what we all imagine a robot to be. The bipedal Aelos 1s can walk, dance and play football. And in carrying out all these actions it responds to spoken commands. But it also challenges young researchers to apply their creativity in programming it and teaching it new actions. And conversely, it also imparts scholastic knowledge.

Cubroid (Stand 231, KIRIA) from Korea starts off by promoting an independent approach to the way it deals with tasks. Multi-functional cubes, glowing as they play music, or equipped with a tiny rotating motor, join together like Lego pieces. Configuration and programming are thus combined, providing a basic idea of what constitutes artificial intelligence.

Spain is represented by Ebotics (Stand 218). This company is presenting an entire portfolio of building components, including the “Mint” educational program. The modular system explains about modern construction, programming and the entire field of robotics.

Elematec Corporation (Stand 208) from Japan is presenting the two-armed SCARA, which is not intended to deal with any tasks, but in particular to assist people with their work.

Everybot (Stand 231, KIRIA) from Japan approaches the concept of robotics by introducing an autonomous floor-cleaning machine, similar to a robot vacuum cleaner.

And Segway (Stand 222) is using a number of products to explain the modern approach to battery-powered locomotion.

IFA will take place at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds (ExpoCenter City) from 6 to 11 September 2019. For more information, visit www.ifa-berlin.com

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