- Radio telemetry studies of wild animals using radio collars has wide application in India from tracking and learning about animal movements and behaviour to mitigating human-animal conflicts.
- The process of radio collaring an animal is replete with risks and challenges including safe immobilisation of the animal and breaking through the government control and monopoly of the technology.
- Collars made in India are expected to reduce the huge costs involved in procuring and using radio collars in conservation studies.
Radio collaring, a popular technology used in wildlife monitoring, has got a bad rap due to the cheetah mishaps in recent months. At least three of the nine cheetah deaths in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh are attributed to infection from radio collars fitted on the cheetahs to monitor them. However, telemetry studies of wild animals, using radio collars, are in fact a highly useful and prized methodology in wildlife research. Much of the literature on animal behaviour, migration, population dynamics, etc. available for conservation studies, is the result of the effective use of this technology for about half a century globally and over three decades in India.
The research using radio telemetry in field ecology was initiated by William W. Cochran in the early 1960s but it came into prominence with the Craighead brothers’ (Frank and John Craighead) path-breaking study of grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. The grizzly population was on the decline. There was very little information about their ecology, home range, behaviour, or what they did during their long absence in the winter months. The researcher couple Mel and Fiona Sunquist are two other prominent names that used this technology for their study on wildcats.
L.D. Mech, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, brought the technology to India in 1976 for training and testing, according to a 2014 review of three decades of wildlife radio telemetry in India. Under the auspices of Project Tiger, two sambars, three nilgai, two chitals and one wild boar were tracked from 1976 to 1980. A tiger was radio-collared along with an Asiatic elephant and an Asiatic lion. As a result of the project, A Handbook of Animal Radio-Tracking was published, which serves as a manual for researchers considering radio tracking.
Radio telemetry comes to India
The first full-fledged radio-telemetry study in India was carried out in 1983 by the Crocodile Research Centre of the Wildlife Institute of India in Hyderabad. They fitted 12 gharials with a transmitter device to track them in the Chambal river, making way for many such studies in India. The Asiatic elephant was the first animal to be fitted with a radio collar for research in India in 1985 in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. In a project titled Operation Masinagudi by the Bombay Natural History Society, two elephants were radio-collared and tracked.
This was followed by the first study using radio collars on the most prized cat in India, the tiger, by conservationist and tiger expert Ullas Karanth in the early 90s. Four tigers were radio-collared to understand their behaviour and ecology and how they were faring in the Nagarhole national park in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats.
Multiple radio-collaring studies were done in the decades following it. The technology saw many advancements from handheld trackers using UHF/VHF (Ultra High Frequency/Very High Frequency) technology (which is still used) to more advanced GSM and satellite technology, making tracking more precise and less strenuous for the researchers. While the former demands manual tracking by foot, vehicles or in some cases, by air (in the West), satellite technology allows the researchers to monitor the movements remotely as signals from radio collars are sent via satellite to the computer.
“Radio telemetry using collaring devices helps researchers collect fine-grain details about the animal tracked,” said Karanth, one of the pioneers of radio collaring and telemetry in India. His six-year-long study revealed a lot about the tiger density in Nagarhole national park and their diet. He later wrote in the Scientific American that he found the tiger home ranges in Nagarhole to be small, suggesting that the tiger population density in protected parks might be higher than previously thought. He wrote that his work revealed many details about the diet of the Malnad tigers by leading him to “the stinking carcasses of the prey they killed”.
The best way to track animals in the wild
While earlier telemetry studies showed a clear bias in the species and habitats studied, with terrestrial mammals such as elephants, leopards and tigers being mostly focused on and species in tough terrains like the Himalayas being largely ignored, things have clearly changed.
Conservation scientist and director of Centre for Policy Design at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Ecology) Abi T. Vanak tracks the movement of four species (between 2015 to now) — Indian foxes, golden jackals, jungle cats and striped hyenas — to understand how they negotiate open natural ecosystems and agricultural landscapes in the Pune district of Maharashtra. “We found that Indian foxes, though spotted frequently in human habitations, depend heavily on grasslands. We will lose the species entirely if grasslands are not conserved,” he said. Other surprising finds such as jungle cats being habitat generalists; jackals preferring to use human-modified landscapes like agricultural lands and hyenas, previously thought to be elusive, being increasingly seen in human-dominated landscapes, were all results of tracking animal movements using radio collaring, he said.
In a first, GPS (Global Positioning System) collars were fitted on the Himalayan wolves in 2015 by the scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). “The Himalayan wolf is probably the highest terrestrial mammal to be collared with a GPS telemetry device,” said conservation scientist Salvador Lyngdoh of WII. Due to the remoteness and the hostility of the terrain, radio tracking is perhaps the only way to understand the movement ecology of the Himalayan species.
Radio telemetry’s application finds prominence in the study of nocturnal animals like certain canid species and those dwelling deep inside the forests or in tracking animals which undertake long, seasonal migrations such as elephants. Another important application of radio telemetry in India is in mitigating negative interactions between humans and elephants. Most radio collaring of elephants has been done to track “problem” elephants or herds to send out warnings to local communities in a bid to avoid negative incidents. Thammaiah Chekkera, project associate at WII in Kodagu in Karnataka has radio-collared 28 such elephants for a project done in collaboration with the Karnataka forest department. He told Mongabay-India that tracking the movement of elephants that frequently come in conflict with humans has reduced fatalities (both human and animal) in Kodagu and Hassan districts that report high numbers of human-elephant conflicts.
A tech with multiple risks and challenges
There is no denying, however, that radio-collaring wild animals, especially large-sized animals like elephants or rhinos as well as carnivores are replete with risks and challenges. The target animal needs to be immobilised first by administering the right dose of the anesthetic drug which, predictably, is the most complicated process. Too much drug can endanger the animal, and too little of it could put the researcher at risk. Once the operation is complete, the animal has to be given a counterdrug to ensure that it walks back into the forest healthy and coherent.
Elephants, when immobilised, should fall on their sides, scientifically referred to as “lateral recumbency”. Whereas “sternal recumbency” or falling on the chest could potentially damage their internal organs, said P.S. Easa, former director of Kerala Forest Research Institute who was a part of the first elephant radio-collaring project, Operation Masinagudi.
Priyanka, the first elephant to be radio-collared for the study, fell on her chest and didn’t wake up when the counter drug was administered after collaring. But the quick-thinking veterinarian managed the situation well and Priyanka walked back to join her herd and sent precious information about the species to the research team. Easa recalled another incident where the dart for immobilisation did not strike the elephant properly and a team member, a young veterinarian, who went into the thicket looking for the target, was attacked by a bear. A video on the Craighead brothers’ research methodology shows a large male grizzly bear weighing over 200 kg waking up in the middle of the operation, sending the researcher brothers scrambling for life.
Radio collars need to be fitted properly so as to not impede the movement of the animals and take into account the probable weight loss or gain of the animal and change in neck circumference in the future. Karanth said that the data collected should be useful for science and taking conservation ahead. “One needs to have serious scientific questions to probe without which it is a misuse of the technology,” he told Mongabay-India.
Indigenous technology is the need of the hour
Radio collaring, while an effective tool, comes at a cost. Radio collars for elephants can cost up to Rs. 4.5 lakh, shared Chekkera. An operation to fit them, spanning a week, would add another Rs. 3 lakh to the budget. This calls for the need to develop indigenous technologies that are cost-effective.
Ecologist Abhijit Kumar started Arcturus.Inc in response to this need. Radio collars built by him cost about one-fifteenth of the European ones. He has sold around 100 of them since his company became operational last year. Using the prototype of the superior European devices, Kumar’s radio collars that use two different technologies, long-range called LoRa and GSM, are customisable to local needs. “I have made radio collars for a range of animals, from civet cats that weigh just about a kilogram to even elephants,” said Kumar. His radio collars are currently being used by various forest departments in the country.
Karanth sees the government monopoly over radio telemetry studies as the biggest hurdle for quality research in the conservation field in India. Many experts Mongabay-India spoke to shared that the enormous paperwork and red tape involved have prevented them from considering radio collaring technology for studies and say that considering the wide application and use of radio collaring studies in the wild, it is time to democratise its use for the sake of conservation.
Banner image: An elephant with a radio collar walks through a coffee estate on May 18, 2023, near Sakleshpur, Hassan district, Karnataka. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.