Footprints May Be Key to
Protecting Rare Rhinos
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
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,"
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
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)
When trackers locate animal prints
in the field, they simply take a digital photo of the print and record its GPS
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.
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,
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
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