African Elephants in Zoos Threatened by Obesity
There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.
James Weliver / USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons
Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.
Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.
Helge Denker / WWF-Namibia
Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.
Centre for Conservation and Research, Flickr Creative Commons
Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.
SMART / North Carolina Zoo
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.
Samir Sinha / TRAFFIC India
In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.
African elephants in captivity are packing on the pounds, and experts warn that the rise in obesity is contributing to infertility, which could be detrimental to the survival of the species in zoos.
To get a handle on the problem, one group of researchers in Alabama is looking for a better way to measure body fat on the already huge animals.
Just like humans, elephants with excess fat are more likely to develop heart disease, arthritis and infertility, Daniella Chusyd, a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a statement. Previous studies have shown an alarming number of African elephants in zoos have irregular or no ovarian cycles. [Elephants Images: The Biggest Land Animal]
Elephants in the wild are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, the illegal ivory trade that continues despite international efforts to shut it down. Zoos may be one of the few remaining ways to protect the species.
The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago issued a report in 2011 predicting that if the abnormal ovarian cycles and resulting low birthrates continue, then African elephants could disappear from zoos in the next 50 years. Zoos in the United States need to average about six births per year to maintain the population, but the current birthrate is only about three births per year. Obesity is suspected to be a major part of the problem.
But elephants are so large that it's difficult for zookeepers to tell the difference between a healthy weight animal and an obese one. Zookeepers can weigh elephants, but there is no good method to determine whether most of their body weight is from muscle or from fat. Kari Morfeld, an endocrinologist at the Wildlife Conservation Research Center at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska, recently came up with a unique way for determining the difference: comparing butt sizes.
Morfeld used a series of photos to rank elephants based on how much fat is around the backbone and hips. She used a scale of 1 to 5, with one being the skinniest elephants and 5 being the fattest. Most elephants in the wild are 2s, but Morfeld found that about 40 percent of zoo elephants are 5s. Her research was detailed in April in the journal PLOS ONE.
However, estimating obesity from images alone is very subjective, Chusyd and her colleagues said.
Chusyd instead plans to measure obesity in a more precise way. Starting in the fall, she will collect blood samples from elephants in zoos across the country and compare the amount of lean tissue to fat tissue. She hopes the results of the study will have important implications for zoos and animal care.
"It may be that zoos will need to rethink how they house and feed elephants to reduce the incidence of overweight ," Chusyd said in a statement. "And not just elephants, as we hypothesize that a relationship between obesity, inflammation and infertility is present in many large mammals, including other imperiled African animals such as the rhinoceros and the gorilla."
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