Conservationist on the frontline to reduce human-wildlife conflict

09 Nov 2018

By Arnold Letsholo

In Botswana Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) is growing to become a grave threat to the survival of many endangered species. This all emanates from the competition between rural communities and wild animals over natural resources.

Recently the Coordinator of the Leopard Ecology Conservation (LEC), Steven Henley shed light on the operations of his organisation based in Botswana. According to Henley, LEC is committed to reducing conflict by monitoring movements of predators and working with local communities to improve their animal husbandry practices.

“LEC's research programme uses two primary technologies to collect data on the movements, behaviour and demographics of leopards and lions: 1) telemetry and 2) the interpretive skills of local San/Basarwa trackers. Telemetry is based on the fitting of collars to predators and these collars contain a GPS (Global Position System) which records the location of the collar (study animal) at hourly and three hour intervals for lions and leopards respectively; a satellite phone which sends this location data to us daily via a website and allows us to change the settings of the collar when it is on the animal; a temperature sensor; an accelerometer which measures movement on a three dimensional plain (X, Y, Z); a VHF (very high frequency) radio transmitter which allows us to track the individual in the field using a direction (Yagi) antenna; a UHF (ultra-high frequency) transceiver which allows us to communicate directly with the collar in the field,” said Henley.

The Compassionate Conservationist said conservation is essentially about the interaction of people and their environment, and while sophisticated technology may be appropriate for research projects, it may not be the case with conservation projects in remote rural areas where people interact with wildlife.

By fitting collars, LEC is able to collect data on where the study animal chooses to be within the landscape (habitat use) and how it moves through different parts of this habitat. “With collars we are able to fine scale spatio-temporal changes in movement metrics (activity and energy budgets); where it makes kills and rests; how it responds to changes in its thermal environment and so forth. What we don't get is data on the condition of the study animals; its social landscape (who it was associating with and how they interacted); what it killed. So by combining the traditional skill of the local inhabitants with the telemetry technology we are able to efficiently and effectively develop a more complete understanding of the ecology, behaviour and demographics of the predators, their habitat and their interaction with people - which is critical conservation issue,” he said.

He revealed that it is more important to focus on appropriate technology in these circumstances. Even where livestock owners had constructed predator-proof kraals to house their cattle, animals returning to the cattle post during the night were excluded from these and a substantial number were being killed by lions around the kraal. Using locally available materials, LEC designed a self-closing kraal door that large livestock could open, but predators could not. This has led to a reduction in livestock predation around these cattle posts.

Henley further elucidated that another technology that they frequently make use of is remotely triggered cameras or “camera traps”. These, he said are cameras set up at a specific location. Depending on the research question this may be waterholes, along a fence or a in a grid layout throughout a larger study area. As animals pass by they trigger an infra-red or motion sensor which will then take a series of images. In this way scientists can collect images/data independently of the presence of observers concurrently at different locations day or night.

Another technology that scientists are in the process of developing is a remote controlled darting device. Arising from an idea developed by predators’ biologists in Switzerland, engineers at the University of Zurich are building a device that would enable researchers to dart and immobilize large mammals at a bait. In this way they hope to capture leopards and lions without the stress associated with chasing them or cage trapping them first. Not only will this be a more humane method of darting animals, they expect it to be more effective particularly for species and individuals that are shy.

He said the fitting of collars to study animals is a common practice amongst wildlife biologists. It is typically used to study animal movement patterns; however sensors have been developed to measure many different biological, behavioral and environmental parameters such as body temperature, vocalization, and atmospheric pressure; that is, depth or height.

The use of local traditional field craft to collect reliable scientific data is not a common practice. The accuracy and precision of this data depends on the interpretive skills of the trackers, the nature of environment and the research questions. Furthermore, there is the danger that the interpretation of tracks and signs leads to subjective or biased rather than objective data. The use of telemetry collars has made a substantial contribution to wildlife research. It has enabled biologists to safely collect data without having to directly observe the study animals.

“So, data can be collected in remote areas, at inconvenient times from animals that are cryptic, dangerous and move over large areas. Use of camera traps have; become increasingly widespread as the statistical methods of analyzing these data has developed. One constraint in the use of this technology is processing the huge number of images a survey can generate. AI software is currently being developed to identify species in such photographs,” he said.

Henley highlighted that originally biologists fitted coloured or numbered tags to animals, primarily birds, and used the recovery of these to study large scale movements.

More recently other sensors have been included in collars, attached to animals or surgically implanted to gather environmental and physiological data.

He said the main advantage with many of the new telemetry technologies such as GPS- collars and camera traps is that once deployed, reliable data can be collected concurrently from many remote locations at all hours without the need for a researcher to be present.

“In our case, the use of collars has allowed LEC to document the exceptional home ranges required by leopards and lions in the central Kalahari (the largest recorded anywhere) and the manner in which they move between Protected Areas and neighboring livestock grazing lands. It has also revealed the dynamic nature of these home ranges and the interaction between adjacent home ranges in species that are typically considered to be territorial,” he said.

Henley explained that an example of the benefits of locally appropriate technology is a project whereby LEC has trains members of the local community on how to trim the hooves of livestock and provide them with the tools to do so. In the Kalahari Sandveld areas many animals develop overgrown hooves. This impacts on their ability to walk and run and reduces their ability to forage effectively. It also makes them vulnerable to predators that are typically opportunistic and will hunt the easiest prey when available. Hoof-trimming has provided a livelihood to members of the local community and reduced the vulnerability of livestock to predators.

The rollout of cellular technologies in rural areas has meant more efficient and economical data collection and transmission.

One of the problems with new technologies is that they produce large amounts of data, and much of the recent development has been in the field of data management and analysis.

The structure or behaviour of some species is such that collars can't be ethically or effectively fitted. For example the head of a rhinoceros is not larger that its neck and so a collar won't necessarily stay in place. In this case telemetry devices have been implanted into the horn or attached to leg strap. Similarly, telemetry devices for some birds are attached to a harness that doesn't impact on their ability to fly, or glued to body feathers which molt off after a certain period.