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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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How tech is keeping us young

Research by Lenovo revealed people who use tech feel, on average, 11 years younger.

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Technology is making the world feel younger, healthier and more emotionally connected, reveals new research by Lenovo, suggesting a growing relationship between technological innovation and wellbeing.

The research, which surveyed over 15,000 individuals from around the globe, from the US, Mexico, Brazil, China, India, Japan, UK, Germany, France and Italy, not only found 40% of global respondents feel “a lot” or “somewhat” more youthful thanks to technology, but on average it made them feel younger by 11 years.

This rings most true in China, where 70% of Chinese respondents said technology made them feel more youthful, which could be perhaps due to technologies ability to build connections between generations, especially those who might have once felt disconnected from tech-savvy youngsters. For example, grandparents are now able to better communicate with their grandchildren via smart technology due to its growing ubiquity and ease of use.

The research suggests that this sentiment is felt world-over, across genders and ages. “To know how to operate newer technology makes me feel younger” one US woman, said.  Another woman, from France, also stated, “Compared to the younger generation who are born with all these technologies, my adaptability makes me feel younger”. On the other side of the globe, one female respondent in India cited tech as making her feel like she “can do anything with it which any youngster can do,” and one Chinese male respondent said: “It helps me catch up with the times – not only gaining more knowledge, but also feel that I’m on-trend; I feel younger”.

The research generally revealed that many older generations think using technology helps them to connect better with younger people as well as feel livelier and more knowledgeable. This is especially evident when it comes to the role smart devices (from PCs, tablets to smart home assistants and more) play in terms of relationships with family and friends. When asked to compare technology today to those of 20 years ago for giving them the ability to feel connected to what is going on in the lives of the people they care about, 65 percent answered it’s “getting better”. While 75% also said technology is improving their ability to stay in touch with family and friends who live far away.

The global research also revealed that tech is helping people when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, offering emotional gains, particularly in parents. Over three-quarters (78%) of working parents stated the ever-connected nature of technology helps them feel more emotionally connected to their children, even when they are away from home. An even larger portion (83%) of working parents agreed that emerging technologies are making it easier for them to feel confident that their kids are safe and secure while they are at work.

Over two-thirds (67%) of respondents in the survey stated they were optimistic about the future of technology and the role tech can play in our lives and society, especially in wellbeing, with 67% believing devices are currently having a positive impact on the ability to improve their overall health. And that’s hardly surprising, considering 84% also said tech has empowered them to make improvements in their lives overall.

Take for instance how one respondent, a 51-year-old woman from the US, highlighted how science is using technology to do great things for amputees, and enabling those suffering from mental illness to better connect with people from all over the world. “I think that the medical breakthroughs we’ve had are a tremendous statement on how we can have a positive relationship with technology,” she said.

The recognition that tech is helping to improve the quality of life could also be a result of the time it tends to save people. Half of respondents across all markets (50%) feel their smart devices save them 30 minutes or more a day by helping them do something faster or more efficiently. Similarly, over half (57%) agreed smart devices, such as computers and smart home devices like smart displays and smart clocks, are making them more productive and efficient, the highest perceptions of which were seen in China at 82% and India at 81%.

In terms of personal health, 36% of respondents said smart devices have made it easier for them to access health care providers and make doctor’s appointments, and a further 39% of those under 60 years of age stated modern tech makes it easier for seniors to contact emergency services.

A 23-year-old woman from India, for example, expressed her belief that the technological advancement of medical science is helping people better fight diseases and potentially cure them. “Lives of people are better off nowadays because they know ways of curing such health hazards,” she said. “Through technology, increasing the life span of an individual is very much possible.”

Psychologist and founder of Digital Nutrition, Jocelyn Brewer, said: “Keeping up with advancements in technology can feel like a full-time job, but it can have positive impacts on people’s sense of themselves and their age. While older people are stereotyped as being techno-phobic or inept at staying on-trend, this research points to the fact that maintaining currency in the digital space helps people feel more youthful, more connected to young people and youth culture, which in turn is a social currency for feeling valued and a sense of belonging or in ‘the know’.

“It’s this tech knowledge that drives the perception of feeling younger, without having to revisit the angst of our adolescence!

“Staying connected to the people we care about is a wonderful feature of technology. And while it is no replacement for face-to-face connection, it is a valuable supplement to communication for those who might be geographically divided. Parents can manage a range of responsibilities and provide increasing appropriate autonomy to teenagers through a variety of communication tools, reminders and systems that can help take the struggle out of the daily juggle.”

Dilip Bhatia, Vice President of User and Customer Experience, Lenovo, said: “There is a growing relationship between innovation and wellbeing as smart technologies are not only helping people globally to stay more connected but aiding wellbeing in the form of compassion and empathy by building better connections between them.”

“Technology has a transformational ability to unite people across generations and walks of life around the world, with the potential to help them to live healthier and more fulfilling lives. At Lenovo, we passionately believe in creating smarter technology for all, which is why we focus on making our technology accessible, blending into the everyday lives for the benefit of more people.”

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Advanced traffic management tech market hits $1bn

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A new report from Navigant Research analyzes the ongoing transformation occurring in the traffic management industry, providing global market forecasts, segmented by region and technology, through 2028.

Advanced traffic management systems (ATMSs) such as adaptive traffic control (ATC) are enabling greater efficiencies in the traffic management ecosystem and can help integrate the expected growth in vehicle populations without overwhelming existing infrastructure. ATMSs are also enabling the development of smart intersections, which are emerging as one of the most important data-driven backbones needed for solving core city challenges. Click to tweet: According to a new report from Navigant Research, the global market for advanced traffic management will be worth more than $1.1 billion in 2019. Annual revenue is expected to grow to nearly $3.8 billion by 2028, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.2%.

“The global advanced traffic management market is expected to more than triple by 2028,” says Ryan Citron, senior research analyst with Navigant Research. “Over the next 10 years, the market is expected to achieve gradual but accelerating growth as cities prioritize reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, make improvements in safety and livability, and integrate ATMSs with other smart city initiatives (e.g., smart street lighting).”

Currently, cities vary in their level of maturity in using ATMSs. Collecting traffic and vehicle detection data is often the first step toward advanced traffic management. Then, in-depth traffic analytics enable traffic managers to develop mitigation strategies and make operational improvements to existing traffic signal timing systems. In cities with mature traffic management solutions, ATC technologies enable traffic signals to adjust based on real-time traffic conditions, traffic data is sent from traffic lights to connected vehicles, inter-agency data sharing is on the rise, and transport platforms are used to manage mobility ecosystems.

The report, Advanced Traffic Management for Smart Cities, analyzes the ongoing transformation occurring in the traffic management industry. The study focuses on ATC, traffic analytics, artificial intelligence, vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, and vehicle detection technologies. Global market forecasts, segmented by region and technology, extend through 2028. This report also explores regional trends in advanced traffic management strategy and highlights city case studies where innovative projects are being deployed. An Executive Summary of the report is available for free download on the Navigant Research website.

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