Connecting the wildlife dots: Satellite data is invaluable for conservation (Namibia)


Namibian Sun

Date Published

A treasure trove of GPS tracking data on Namibian wildlife could prove crucial in answering fundamental wildlife questions, plus help scientists identify possible solutions to a number of issues related to wildlife behavior and human-wildlife conflict. This was one of the main discussion points of a landmark symposium on animal movements and satellite tracking that was held recently at the B2Gold Namibia Otjikoto Nature Reserve last week, attended by more than thirty local and international researchers and scientists.

Most risk factors that have plunged many Namibian wildlife species into a battle for survival are a result of, among other factors, expanding and invasive human activities and populations across the country. The importance of pooling resources, expertise, and findings, and avoiding duplicate work, could help scientists refine their studies to help pave the way for improved management practices and strategies, all of which could help wildlife and humans co-exist more peacefully.

According to ecologist and environmental scientist Dr Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE), the symposium was held to bring together researchers in order to promote the sharing of study results as well as future collaborations. Combining data from different research projects, which focus on the same species or areas or both, can reveal new insights and lead to fresh areas of exploration.

At the conclusion of the symposium last week, B2Gold’s corporate general manager Charles Loots said collaboration could help shape public perceptions and policies on wildlife. “This is the beginning of something quite special,” he said. Lise Hanssen from the Kwando Carnivore Project in the Zambezi Region said the symposium had kickstarted a renewed conversation between scientists critical to the work they do.

A First for Namibia

The symposium was held over the course of two days at the B2Gold Otjikoto nature reserve in northern Namibia, as a collective effort between NCE, together with Kenneth /Uiseb from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Morgan Hauptfleish from the Namibia University of Science & Technology (NUST), and Duane Rudman and Andre Rousseau of the Otjikoto Reserve and Education & Environment Trust. B2Gold Namibia played a key role in the founding of the NCE this year, and has set a new standard for the way in which the mining industry and social issues give back to the environment to offset mining’s destructive impact on it. According to Brown, the topic of animal movements and satellite tracking was picked for a specific reason.

“The current situation is that everyone tends to work in isolation. People are doing their own thing, using their own experimental designs and getting results. And they share the results, but at a superficial level, with each other,” Brown told the Namibian Sun. The symposium was attended by researchers specializing in various fields of study of different species of wildlife. All the research is based, to various degrees, on using satellite tracking data to gain insight into animal behavior and the obstacles the animals face.

Namibian researchers were joined by participants from Scotland, Austria, South Africa, and Botswana. Through individual presentations, the attendees shared their findings, obtained through painstaking field work as well as poring over reams of data derived from satellite tracking.

Scientists have managed to place tracking devices on animals such as tortoises, reclusive brown hyenas, snakes, crocodiles, vultures, and the African pangolin. Buffalo, zebra, and oryx, as well as cattle, and predators such as cheetah, lion, and leopard in addition to rhinos and elephants and spotted hyenas, have been equipped with devices to track their daily movements. Lion research in the Zambezi Region found that “shy lions have a better chance of survival” in the densely populated areas of the region, but as a result have less tourist value because of the difficulty of spotting them.

Research based on collared lions found a much lower incidence of livestock predation than previously thought. The behavior of animals before and after giving birth to their young, observed via field work and maps created from tracking data, has rewarded scientists with some of the most valuable insights into the species.

Top Tool

The symposium included presentations from academics specializing in statistics and the technical and software aspects of animal tracking. Brown noted that GPS and other forms of remote tracking have become popular research tools that provide constant information on animal movements, connecting the dots of their daily lives. Having looked at a number of tracking reports from scientists, however, it was clear that “one can get so much more from the data than what is currently being extracted from it.” As a result, many scientists, working in isolation, often fail to interrogate the data as efficiently as possible.

Working together enhances the value of GPS tracking, because the cumulative data can tell a “fuller story,” Brown explained. “So it is very useful to put some of these stories together. It is also very important that we get people sharing information and data and to start to work together more closely,” he said. According to feedback from the participants following the conclusion of the symposium last week Friday, the event was a catalyst for realizing that working together will enrich their work, rather than dilute it.

Answers, Questions

Some of the most interesting questions raised by comparing GPS data from various researchers were about the unexplained behavior of animals, such as elephants and oryx, in respect of artificial barriers, including unfenced park borders and roads. “Why do animals respect park borders although there are no fences? Is it because they fear humans and their actions against these animals? Why do unfenced roads seem to be a barrier to elephant breeding herds, which avoid crossing them?” was one of the questions some of the researchers, in collaboration, will pursue following the symposium.

Presentations given by different vulture researchers, based locally and in neighboring countries, showed an unexpected trend of vulture flight paths and foraging grounds. Vultures breeding in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana were shown, through tracking data, to converge regularly at core foraging areas in the southern African region, including areas where mass poisoning events are common.

Researchers also shared data that revealed the extreme distances vultures cover in mere months, spanning multiple countries. According to Professor Norman Owen-Smith, one of the presenters at the symposium, information that can be gathered from tracking animal movements include their home ranges, migration patterns, habitat use, various activity patterns including nocturnal habits and the impact of changes in the environment, interactions with other wildlife species, drinking and feeding frequency and diet composition and nutrition.

Sweat Equity

The neatly collated presentations shared by researchers during the symposium mask the often difficult circumstances under which the data is collected. The rows of numbers and graphs hide the tedious and tough aspects of spending months and years in the field, defied and frustrated by unreliable technologies, funding demands, red tape, and the unpredictable nature of humans and wildlife, all of which test the patience and commitment of the most dedicated researcher. Nevertheless, that aspect forms part of the work, and Brown emphasized that “sweat equity” during field work remains critical to wildlife research. He warned that without close observation of study animals, “looking at dots on a screen doesn’t help you interpret what they are doing, why and how they are doing it.”

And Action

The meeting concluded with a list of actions and resolutions, including ideas and suggestions of future collaborative projects and regular information sharing. One of the main outcomes is the creation of a virtual tracking group, a platform on which researchers can share latest data, techniques and ideas.

The environment ministry’s Kenneth Uiseb, one of several ministry representatives at the symposium, said the symposium helped to provide insight into ongoing research around the country and would help to identify research gaps, which the ministry could address. “This information will also help us to avoid duplication, which will help us direct external research into specific areas where there are gaps,” Uiseb said.

He added that while Namibian wildlife plays a critical role in propping up the tourism industry, a section of the economy that contributes significantly to the GDP, it is important to keep in mind that “we live in changing times.” He said increasing human population numbers and their land-use demands require that research is undertaken to understand the status of wildlife. If that status is clear, then relevant stakeholders can formulate far-reaching management plans. “Without research, there will be no basis to base decisions on,” Uiseb said.