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.

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