As Director of Technology for WCN, one of my responsibilities is to help our Partners use technology effectively to help save wildlife.
Last November, I was lucky enough to visit Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Zimbabwe. I had the chance to talk to several key staff members, observe their bush camp for local sixth graders, and see firsthand how the PDC team monitors the painted dogs that live in Hwange National Park, the area where PDC primarily works.
Because painted dog packs have such large territories – often over 230 square miles (600 square kilometers) – tracking them is quite a challenge. PDC has primarily been using collars that emit a “ping” every few seconds on a specific frequency. Scouts who are tracking the dogs can hear the ping via a receiver and headphones. The scouts drive around a pack’s territory with an omnidirectional antenna listening for a ping, then switch to a directional antenna to pinpoint the exact location of the pack.
Animal tracking technology is a delicate balance. Tracking devices are all trying to maximize functionality, longevity, and durability while minimizing impact to the animal. Painted dog collars should weigh no more than approximately 1.5% of the dog’s weight, working out to be just over half a pound. The wooded landscape that the dogs live in can interfere with the tracking device, cutting the effective range that a collar can be heard to about .62 miles (1.5 kilometers). But helicopter tracking has shown that getting the antenna above the forest canopy can increase the collar’s range.
Now that I’m back from Zimbabwe, I have a long list of things to investigate, from directional antennas mounted on weather balloons to remote drones that can detects and home in on a collar; from improved antennas to next-generation collar technology. Our partners like PDC are already doing great work in the field, but there is always room for improvement. With the help of some judiciously applied technology, I am optimistic we can have an even bigger impact on wildlife conservation.