How do researchers actually know how many tigers there are left? What about polar bears? Or the famously elusive snow leopard? Traditional monitoring techniques used by wildlife experts can sometimes end up doing the animals more harm than good. An organization named WildTrack may have come up with an answer: a technique of non-invasive wildlife monitoring that brings together indigenous knowledge and cutting edge technology.
Comprehensive and sustainable wildlife monitoring is what decision-makers need to, well, to make their decisions: important ones, like how best to stop the destruction of our planet's biodiversity and help save endangered species. They need a framework and they need data. The only problem is, reliable facts and figures about wild animal populations are incredibly difficult to acquire, and any shortcomings can produce dangerously innacurate results. The result of India's latest tiger census, for example, has already come in for some serious criticism due to possible flaw in its methods.
As well as being unrealiable, the methods used can also be costly - such as the use of tracking devices - or just downright invasive - like fitting animals with transponders, notching their ears or observing them closely from vehicles in the ground or in the air. The founders of WildTrack were working as researchers in Southern Africa when they found themselves faced with exactly these problems.
They were there to monitor the local rhino populations, but the radio collars the animals had been fitted with seemed to be having a dangerous side-effect: a negative impact on the fertility of the females. In fact, on many levels they just weren't working. Lots of the devices were failing after only a few months, and those that didn't fail would sometimes get too tight as the animals grew, causing them physical harm and distress - that's if the animals wearing the tracking devices could even be found, that is. At the same time, they were spending a lot of time walking through the bush with local expert trackers who had years of experience and were able to identify animals in a much simpler way: merely by looking at their prints. They decided to take this technique and adapt it for laymen too, fusing indigenous knowledge with modern technology.
And thus the Footprint Identification Technique (FIT) was born: a non-invasive, cost-effective and sustainable method of identifying endangered species merely by using digital images of their footprints. First the footprints are captured on film. Then they are converted into a geometric profile which serves as the data. This data is then analysed and the animal prints can be classified according to species, individual animal, even age range and sex.
Wildtrack affiliated projects are already underway in all corners of the globe: including animal researchers looking at tapir tracks in South America, conservation organisations monitoring cheetahs in Namibia, Inuits keeping tabs on polar bears in Nunavut and even academics having a peek at the humble (but endangered) Hazel doormouse in the UK. For more information about these projects and more, visit the Wildtrack website.