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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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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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