19 May 2005

New tracking device planned for marine mammals

South African researchers plan to collar dusky dolphins next month with a new tracking device that uses cellphone SIM cards.

This will enable them to track the marine mammals along their coastal ranges and at a fraction of the price of old satellite technology. "We plan to collar dusky dolphins next month off Cape Town. We'll do it as a trial at first with a collar that will release and fall off after 10 days," said Martin Haupt of Africa Wildlife Tracking, which makes animal tracking devices.

"With cellphone towers on coasts you can have a signal for 2,5km out to sea," he said in an interview.

Dusky dolphins usually stay near shore, making them the perfect aquatic "guinea pigs" for such an experiment, for which they will have to be captured for the collar to be attached.

The black and white dolphins are also famed for their explosive displays of aerial acrobatics which means they can stay above the surface long enough to lock a signal on them.

If successful, Haupt hopes to use the technology on other dolphins in an effort to help scientists track the ranges and habits of different sea creatures.

Whales are another goal but the obstacles are huge.

"The problem with whales is how do you attach it? You can't immobilise them. Still, people are trying to figure out a way," he said.

Haupt said cellphone technology had revolutionised animal tracking over the past four years and about 200 beasts were now collared with such technology in Africa, including elephants, zebras and baboons.

"It's a lot cheaper than using satellites. A reading is the cost of an SMS," he said.

The batteries last longer than those used in the old satellite devices, the system uses GPS tracking and your elephant is just an SMS text message away.

"You can type in an SMS 'Where is elephant number 1?' and it will give you its location," he said.

Haupt added that you can punch in the co-ordinates of the elephant's range or the reserve where it should stay and it will send you a message if the elephant strays outside that boundary - a useful tool in reducing conflict between humans and elephants.

Most of the animals with cellphone collars are in South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Cameroon.

The technology is obviously restricted by the availability of cellular phone reception.

But as Africa is fast going wireless, researchers in the field will be making more use of cellphones to keep tabs on their four-legged or finned charges.

Source: www.iol.co.za


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