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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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Welcome to world of 2099

The world of 2099 will be unrecognisable from the world of today, but it can be predicted, says one visionary. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK met him in Singapore.

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Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touch-screens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.

This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.

Singapore was the venue, last week, of the World Cities Summit, where engineers, politicians, investors and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.

As part of the Summit, global payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers about the future, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary,” offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.

“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells a group of journalists from Africa and the Middle East. “Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”

The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is, what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.

“If you want to look at 81 years into the future, and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past. That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”

  •    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

Use the page links below to continue reading about Tan’s visions.

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Win a Poster Heater with Gadget and Takealot.com

This winter Gadget and Takealot.com are giving away three Poster Heaters, which look like posters but become heaters when you plug them in.

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Three Gadget readers will each win a unit, valued at R550 each. To enter, follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter and tell us on the @GadgetZA account how many Watts the heater consumes.

What’s the big deal about these heaters? Many of us are struggling to keep the balance between soaring electricity costs and the need to keep warm this winter.

However, the recently launched Poster Heater by EasyHeat and distributed in South Africa by Takealot.com is not only one of the most cost effective electric heaters currently on the market, it is also easy to setup and use.

As the name indicates, it is a poster similar to one you would hang on a wall. But, plug it in and it turns into a 300 Watt heater. The Poster Heater isn’t designed to heat hallways or large rooms, but rather smaller ones like a bedroom or a baby’s nursery or a dressing room.

It uses radiant heating, which means that it heats up in a couple of minutes and the heat is directed at the objects or people around it, quickly taking the chill out of the air and providing a comfortable ambient temperature.

The other advantage of radiant heating is that it doesn’t dry out the air like infrared or gas heaters. Users also don’t have to worry about their children or pets getting too close to it because, even though it gets hot, it can be touched.

To enter the competition follow the steps below:

Competition entry details:

1. Follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter. (We will ONLY be accepting entries via Twitter, so please don’t enter through the comments section of this article.)

2. Tell us on Twitter, via @GadgetZA, mentioning @Takealot in your posting, how many Watts the Poster Heater consumes.

cleardot.gif3. The competition closes on 31 July 2018.

4. Winners will be notified via Twitter on 1 August and Takealot.com will be in touch to organise delivery.

5. The competition is only open to South African residents.

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