Somewhere in the Kruger National Park, Cole du Plessis steps out of his vehicle and slowly waves a contraption that looks like a TV antenna.
He watches a small digital display on a handheld device. Suddenly, it pings. He moves around. It pings twice.
“We’ve got signal,” he says with quiet satisfaction. But he’s not talking about a cellphone signal. He’s just used a receiver that picks up VHF signals – low-power, short-range radio waves.
The transmitter is fixed to a tracking collar that has been attached to an African wild dog – South Africa’s most endangered large carnivore. Du Plessis works for the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), with the unique title of national wild dog meta population coordinator.
Cole’s focus on this single species is testament both to its endangered status – there are fewer than 500 surviving in South Africa – and the special nature of the animal. It’s one of the most socialised of all wild animals, with a highly structured social order, a collective style of hunting and an orderly approach to feeding on a kill, with the young always feeding first.
It is also one of the underdogs of the wild, with what the EWT calls “a mistaken reputation for attacking livestock”, which results in them being persecuted by humans as much as by lions. That’s aside from its susceptibility to poachers’ snares and even road accidents.
A combination of human and natural threats have resulted in the wild dog going extinct in 23 countries of Africa, and there are fewer than 5 000 on the entire continent. That makes it even rarer than the rhino, which has become the poster animal for endangered wildlife.
Help is at hand, however, and technology is playing a major role in attempts to bring the species back from the brink of total extinction. The EWT’s Kruger Rare Carnivore Programme is a major project to investigate threats to wild dogs and factors affecting their numbers, as well as to track their movement in the Greater Kruger ecosystem.
Cole previously worked with Wildlife ACT in KwaZulu-Natal, using telemetry to track and locate wild animals in smaller reserves. In smaller reserves, intensive monitoring was possible, as well as necessary, due to the proximity of local communities living around the reserves. The challenge in the Kruger Park is very different, largely due its size.
“In smaller reserves, VHF gives you the luxury of getting live tracking data every day,” says Cole, who has a masters degree in protected area management.
“In the Kruger and in the Gorongoza in Mozambique, the rural nature of the area and the lack of road access means that, to find wild dogs, you have to use satellite collars with GPS devices fitted.
“So you have luxury of sitting on computers at home or the office and tracking them. The problem is, the more GPS data you want to download, the shorter the collar battery’s duration.”
He points out that animal tracking technology does not have the luxury of GPS tracking on cellphones, which have their batteries charged by human beings every day.
“There are three categories of collar: VHS is very old tech but very reliable, and uses very high frequency radio telemetry. GSM collars work off the cellphone network, have SIM cards built in and relay information through cellular signals, based on proximity to a tower or handheld device.
“The third collar is the best type, using GPS, and there are different types. We traditionally used Sirtrack, a New Zealand company which developed satellite tracking collars for wildlife. But they cost around R55 000 to R60 000, so we couldn’t use too many. In KZN and Kruger we use all these categories of tracker.”
Fortunately, tracking collars are being manufactured locally by African Wildlife Tracking, at half the cost of the imported versions. David Marneweck, manager of the EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme, points out that the objectives for putting on the collar determine what technology is used.
“The more often we ask the collar to relay data, the shorter the battery life. If we want data once a day, it lasts a year and a half. If you’re doing a study on habitat use, once a day is fine, but if you want to vaccinate a population, once every six hours makes more sense, and battery life is affected accordingly.”
When Cole or other members of the world dog project pick up a signal, they are able to home in on the general location of a wild dog pack. Usually, due to the cost and complexity of collaring a dog, the focus is on the alpha male in each pack. This means that the entire pack can be tracked, even if only one dog is collared.
The collars have to be checked regularly and the batteries replaced, and this can only be done by darting the animal to sedate it. Sometimes, it can take several days to track down a single wild dog. In the process, however, the team regularly comes across animals in distress.
During an expedition with the wild dog tracking team coordinated by Vodacom, we receive an urgent call: members of the team have come across an elephant caught in a poacher’s snare. It’s a crude wire trap, but it has cut deep into the elephant’s leg. The Kruger Park’s state vets are called and they are quickly on the scene to sedate the animal, remove the snare and treat its injuries.
A few hours later, we finally find one of the elusive wild dogs. It is sedated, collar and battery checked and after a few minutes, the beautiful animal staggers to its feet and hobbles away.
Among the observers is John Mitchell, coach of the Vodacom Bulls rugby team. He is there with several of his players to see the tracking project in action. It is not a mere public relations exercise, though. Mitchell uses the wild dog as a metaphor for the strategies he has used to transform the team in the past year.
“They are not only underdogs, but they work as a team, win as a pack and support each other, even in most dangerous circumstances,” he explains.
“Even if one is injured, it is never abandoned.”
Mitchell watches with admiration as the tracking team and the vets, too, work in close cooperation. The vets and the wild dog tracking team have a symbiotic relationship and it is clear that a deep mutual respect exists between them.
“Just implementing technology doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful,” says Marneweck. “You still have to use your expertise to achieve your goal and to get wild dogs immobilised ethically and effectively within a reasonable period of time.”
Given the rapid advances in cellular, radio and satellite technology in just the past five years, one would expect tracking to become far easier and cheaper. Marneweck insists they have tried it all, and the advances that aid cellular connectivity still do not offer the range or battery efficiency that makes it practical for wildlife tracking across a vast area like the Kruger.
“Everything is based on battery life and we’ve tried everything from kinetic technology to solar technology, like small solar panels. It’s a great idea and we use it for vulture backpacks extremely successfully; it can last seven years. With dogs, however, they roll in the mud and get dirty. The panels fill with dirt very quickly and become useless.”
There are many benefits of tracking. “Without collars, wild dog conservation would not have been possible,” says Du Plessis. “Today is a case in point. It was so hard to find. Imagine if they didn’t have collars, it would have been impossible. Wild dogs have been saved from snares by anti-snare plates fitted to the side of the collar, which absorbs the force of snares.”
The current project is a collaboration between SANparks, the state veterinary authority and the EWT. It started in July 2016, after an outbreak of canine distemper virus wiped out a pack of wild dogs in the Kruger.
The project is both a health survey and a targeted vaccination of wild dogs, to understand the threat and protect the animals from disease.