Footprint Identification Technique - The Future Of Monitoring Wildlife?

Footprint Identification Technique - The Future Of Monitoring Wildlife?

Posted by Ellie Hutchin on 16th Jan 2019

Volunteers who are planning to visit the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary will be involved with an exciting activity called F.I.T. This stands for Footprint Identification Technique, and as you can probably guess from the name, it’s all about monitoring wildlife simply by their footprints. This non-invasive wildlife monitoring technique works by analysing and photographing their footprints and uploading the images to a database where a catalogue of individuals can be identified and monitored. 

Just one footprint left by an animal will allow you to identify the individual, its approximate age, its gender, and its size.  Crucially, this information can be used to track the individuals and to determine their home range – something which comes in particularly useful at the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary. This revolutionary technology poses an ethical, cost-effective way of trying to mitigate human-wildlife conflict in Namibia.  While the sanctuary is currently only focusing on cheetah and leopard, the technology itself can be applied to a whole host of animals across the globe, meaning it is not only valuable for the team at the sanctuary but effectively the entire conservation world!  

Where Did It Start? 

Footprint Identification Technique In Namibia

Back in 2004, a veterinarian named Zoe and a wildlife biologist named Sky had been monitoring black and white rhino in Africa. This work was undertaken across several years, and the data they had collected throughout that time revealed that their invasive monitoring techniques were having a negative impact on female fertility. These invasive techniques (namely GPS collars) were not appealing to the female rhino populations and, subsequently, they weren’t interested in mating with their male counterparts! In response to these findings, Zoe and Sky began to develop the technology to identify animals by their footprints alone, eradicating the negative impact that prior methods had had on rhino breeding.

Fast forward a few years, Zoe and Sky have now formed the organisation Wild Track, and the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary have jumped on board…

Why Is This Important For The Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary? 

Leopard At Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary

Human-wildlife conflict is a serious issue in Namibia and poses a huge threat to the country’s six large carnivores: lions, leopards, cheetahs, African wild dogs, brown hyenas and spotted hyenas. As a result of conflict, each of these species’ populations are suffering a rapid decline. The conflict occurs when large carnivores venture onto farmland (learn more about this here), but with around 4000 commercial farm properties in Namibia - where up to 40% of Namibians depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and where most of the animals’ home ranges fall outside of protected areas – the threats of conflict are, sadly, inevitable.

The response to conflict all too often results in the lethal action against carnivores, with retaliation being carried out in response to them killing livestock. This is seen as a way to control the carnivores which are viewed as ‘vermin’ and ‘pests’, but the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary aims to mitigate this as much as possible. Around 2009, the sanctuary established a Rapid Response Unit, where local farmers are able to call the sanctuary whenever large carnivores are spotted on their land. Within 24 hours, the RRU term arrive to relocate the animal, moving it into a safe area away from livestock. Before the relocation takes place, the carnivores are fitted with a GPS collar (where possible), and their movements are monitored from that point onwards. Data is downloaded from these collars on a daily basis, indicating the location of the carnivore and bringing fresh kill sites to the attention of the team. The team will then determine whether the kill was a prey animal or livestock. All of this information is then fed back to the farmers themselves, allowing them to feel assured and aware of goings-on.

Cheetah At The Namibia Wildlife Samctuary

While the use of collars provides an excellent way of engaging with the community, keeping them up to date with the sanctuary’s own conservation efforts, the GPS collars themselves are hugely expensive. Each item costs between USD2000-USD3000 and can only be fitted on fully grown adults, meaning cubs or pups are unable to be monitored. In addition to this, the collars have a life span of just 2 years – and since the sanctuary is entirely self-sustained (relying on the help of volunteers, donations and a luxury lodge), the costs are simply too high. The volunteer programme itself funds a phenomenal 70% of the sanctuary’s costs, but even so it would not be a sustainable choice to fit every wild carnivore with a collar.

So, this is where F.I.T comes in! 

Volunteers At The Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary

After experiencing huge success with their rhinos (even winning an award for the first-ever footprint census of a white rhino population in Namibia!), Wild Track have spread their wings and now work with many organisations. From helping universities in Virginia to research how to extract DNA from animal footprints when the prints themselves are unclear, to tracking mountain lions in Texas and China, the team’s work has certainly made a global impact. Of course, the last few years have been spent working with the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary, where both parties have worked towards developing the algorithm and artificial intelligence to identify cheetah footprints.

So how do volunteers help?

Volunteers At The Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary

• Volunteers will help to collect the footprints at the sanctuary, analysing them and helping them to create a database full of vital information necessary for the development of the technology.

• Volunteers will help to prepare a bed of sand for the carnivores to walk across, leaving their footprints behind. They’ll then remove any debris (such as leaves and rocks) from the sand before raking it back over to leave a smooth, flat base.

• Next the big cats will be lured out of their enclosures with a tasty treat, and (hopefully!) as they approach, they’ll leave a clear set of footprints in the sand. The volunteers will then analyse the prints.

• Once the footprints have been laid, volunteers will measure them and will try to work out whether it was left by a font or back paw/a left or right paw, whether the animal was male or female, and roughly what age the big cat in question may be. Other elements will be taken into consideration here – you can learn all about the full process by volunteering on the project!

• All pictures and data gathered from the prints will then be input to a database by the wildlife coordinator, but volunteers are welcome to tag along to witness the process if they so wish!

How will the sanctuary use the information?

Analysing Footprints At The Namibia Wildlife Sanctuay

With the GPS collars, the sanctuary can track wild cheetah and leopard to gain insight into their range and movement patterns, and this information is then passed onto farmers. This helps to build trust with the local community so when the inevitable event of a large carnivore wandering onto farmlands does happen, the community are much more likely to call the sanctuary’s Rapid Response unit first, before handling the matter themselves with a shotgun, snare trap or poison. Going forward, the hope is that this new monitoring technique will replace the collars altogether. 

While this FIT software is very much still a work in progress, its success thus far cannot be denied, and it’s fair to say that when it is fully developed, this software will be revolutionary for the conservation world. With plans to expand the technology so that anyone can upload a snap of a footprint and identify animals from anywhere in the world, the future of conservation looks bright with Wild Track involved. Ethics and funding are two major issues the conservation realm faces every day, but Wild Track offers a non-invasive, cost-effective way of monitoring wildlife so we can preserve them the best we can. 

Learn more about the Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary! 

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