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Footprints May Be Key to Protecting Rare Rhinos

Adrianne Appel
for National Geographic News
December 12, 2005
 
Imagine a database with digital files on every imperiled animal on the
planet. That's what two rhino researchers have in mind, and they say it
starts with a single footprint.

Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai, of Portugal, have begun building a computer database that stores photographs of footprints left by rhinos and other endangered species.

The digital archive will become a tool for monitoring and ultimately protecting the animals, the scientists say. Conservationists monitor rhinos and other endangered animals to track their numbers and to better protect them from poachers and habitat encroachment.

Jewell and Alibhai say the invasive methods currently used on rhinos—such as radio collaring, horn implants, and ear notching—are very expensive and can be dangerous to both the animals and people involved.

"You have to bring in veterinarians and pilots. We believe it is not a very sustainable solution," Jewell said.

Their alternative, called WildTrack, blends high-tech tools with the tracking skills of the San, or Bushmen, an indigenous people of southern Africa.

The method taps the expertise of indigenous trackers and can easily be taught to amateur trackers around the world, Jewell said.

One Footprint, One Rhino

"Many species are highly stressed, and the last thing researchers want to do is engage in research that adversely affects individuals in their study populations," said Don Melnick, a conservation biologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Melnick uses noninvasive monitoring—analyzing DNA-related material found in dung samples—to study rare Javan rhinos. "I call it stealth genetics, because we're never going to see a single animal," the biologist said.

Thirty years ago Melnick studied the proteins of wild rhesus monkeys by immobilizing them and obtaining blood samples. He said he strongly prefers the non-invasive methods now available.

Jewell and Alibhai began searching for a different way to monitor rhinos after discovering that the radio collars they had placed on black rhinos in Zimbabwe, Africa, interfered with the animals' reproduction.

Meanwhile, the pair noted, indigenous trackers could often identify individual animals by their footprints, which vary slightly, much like human fingerprints.

WildTrack takes advantage of this variation to identify and monitor animals in the wild. All human trackers need, the researchers say, is a digital camera and a global positioning system (GPS) device.

When trackers locate animal prints in the field, they simply take a digital photo of the print and record its GPS map coordinates.

Trackers send the information to the researchers electronically. Software then characterizes the footprint, and the data is stored a digital library.

Eventually prints sent from the field can be matched to the archived records of known individuals.

Rare Rhinos

Jewell and Alibhai have begun using WildTrack to census tapirs in Argentina, Bengal tigers in India and Bangladesh, and Iberian lynxes in Spain and Portugal.

Next month the researchers will start gathering data about a subspecies of black rhinos found in Cameroon, West Africa.

The scientists chose the animal because there are estimated to be just 15 individuals left, making it possibly the most endangered subspecies in the world. (Subspecies are members of an animal species found in a distinct geographic area.)

The rhinos, which are black only because of the mud caked on their hides, have largely disappeared as a result of habitat destruction and slaughter for their horns.

There are only about 2,600 black rhinos in central and southern Africa and a total of 18,000 rhinos in the world. There were 70,000 rhinos just 30 years ago.

The black rhino is known for its aggressiveness and its nimble upper lip, which it uses to grasp and browse on shrubs. The animals live to be 40 to 60 years old.

WildTrack's goal in Cameroon is to get an accurate count of the number of individuals. Some philanthropists have said they will contribute money to preserve the black rhinos only if it can first be proven that a viable population exists, the researchers say.

If WildTrack can confirm a population, the resulting donations could be used to hire armed guards to protect the animals, the scientists say.

"We hold the key to unlocking this funding," Jewell said, adding that groups have been trying to get an accurate count for about 20 years. "This is a last-ditch effort."

Because WildTrack is noninvasive, "if this [approach] doesn't work, then there is no harm done," she said.

Sumatran Rhino

In April WildTrack will be used to study rare Sumatran rhinos on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.

The animals are the only rhinos with a hairy coat. They live in small bands in dense jungle, where they eat fruit, leaves, twigs, and bark.

The species's population has declined 50 percent during the past 15 years, and past monitoring efforts have been fraught with difficulties.

There are only about 30 of the rhinos left, and they "are very, very elusive," Jewell said. "We're really talking about a remnant population."

"It's a three-day trek to get to them through the jungle from base camp. It will definitely be a challenge."

WildTrack receives help from Friends of Conservation, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, England, and SAS, a U.S. software company. The project's rhino research is funded by the National Geographic Society's Conservation Trust.

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