Fleeing animals can give away poachers

Movement patterns of animals seem to be so specific that they can give away the reason they are on the move. Wageningen researchers at the Resource ecology chair group are going to see whether they can make use of this fact to catch up with poachers before they strike. The project, sponsored by the NWO…
Roelof Kleis

Photos: Henje de Knegt & Tim Hofmeester

The idea is based on recent Wageningen research in South Africa which studied how the density of zebras and wildebeest changes after an encounter with a lion. The researchers fitted the animals with transmitters and tracked their movements. The expectation was that the density would decrease, explains Frank van Langevelde. After all, the animals flee and disperse.

And the expectation was right, but the surprise was how long the effect lasted. ‘The disturbance was visible for up to eight hours after the encounter,’ says Van Langevelde. Only then is the density of the herds and the speed at which the animals move back at the old level. ‘As well as that, you can distinguish between zebras and wildebeest on the basis of those patterns.’

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The results set the researchers and Professor Herbert Prins on a trail. As Henjo de Knegt expressed it: ‘If you can measure the reaction of animals to a disturbance so precisely, can’t we use that in the war on poaching?’ The assumption here is that animals such as zebras, wildebeest and impalas react differently to disturbances by poachers than to those caused by lions, tourists or park rangers.

In order to test this, 200 animals will be tracked in a South African wildlife park next spring. The animals will be fitted with a tracking devices including a speedometer, so that exactly what they are doing can be monitored. De Knegt: ‘The idea is that when abnormal behaviour is detected you can get a park ranger to the spot as fast as possible.’

Technologists from Twente University are involved in the project too. Should the warning system turn out to work, the next step is to get an idea of the animals’ movement patterns without the use of transmitters, using infrared cameras from space for instance.

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