Monitoring endangered species

Posted on 04 May 2009  | 
In this update, a discussion of different methods of developing and implementing non-invasive and cost-effective methods of monitoring endangered species, why the weather has become an obsession for the Catlin Arctic Survey team, and why it's the little things that make the difference in an ambitious project like this one.

May 4, 2009

Sky Alibhai and Zoë Jewell founded WildTrack in 2004 to develop and implement non-invasive and cost-effective methods of monitoring endangered species.  A zoologist and veterinarian, working with Peter Law an independent mathematician and tracker, they began to develop a footprint identification technique (FIT) while working in Zimbabwe to help monitor the highly endangered black rhino in Zimbabwe.  FIT has since been successfully adapted for several other species including white rhino, Bengal tiger, lowland and Baird’s tapir, the African lion and now the Polar bear.

FIT won the Smithsonian Computerworld Honors award in the Environment, Energy and Agriculture in 2002.  WildTrack has presented and published extensively on non-invasive approaches to wildlife monitoring.  The organisation is currently based in Portugal but will be relocating to North Carolina USA,  to work with the SAS Institute and NC State University in July 2009.  WildTrack has been generously and enthusiastically supported by SAS software since its inception.

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list 2007 (Schliebe, 2006), and is a threatened species under the US federal Endangered Species Act.  There remain only an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Polar bears distributed around the north pole, in territories belonging to the  U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway. (IUCN/SSC, 2006).  The Polar bear is also an iconic species of these Arctic ecosystems, and hence a keynote species in the ‘International Polar Year’ time frame of 2007-2009.  The Polar bear needs sea ice to hunt for seals, and hence to survive (Derocher et al, 2004; Stirling & Parkinson, 2006). Dramatic reductions in sea ice coverage (IPCC,2007) are projected across the whole Arctic in the near future. Close and regular monitoring to manage and protect populations is essential for the long-term survival of this species, but is not possible under the current protocol of invasive and extremely expensive aerial Capture-Mark-Recapture (CMR) inventories every 12-15 years.  This frequency is clearly insufficient to inform on essential changes in Arctic environment which might be affecting the bear populations.

Furthermore, current monitoring methods are invasive by nature. New data are emerging which suggest that repeat immobilizations of individuals, required to fit and maintain radio-telemetry devices, could have negative effects on fertility and behaviour (Cattet et al., 2008, Dyck et al. 2007).  This is consistent with WildTrack research on black rhino in Zimbabwe (Alibhai et. al. 2001; Alibhai & Jewell 2001, 2002) and that of others reviewed by Murray & Fuller, 2000.

WildTrack is now in the process of developing and implementing a non-invasive, cost-effective and sustainable approach to Polar bear monitoring.  The footprint identification technique (Jewell et al. 2001, Alibhai & Jewell, 2008b. 2008c, Alibhai & Jewell, 2008a ), will work alongside Inuit Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of polar bear habitat preference and behaviour, and with non-invasive genetic census techniques to provide reliable annual scientific data and build capacity for monitoring in Inuit communities.

The Catlin Arctic Survey and WildTrack have been working together over the last year to take the opportunities afforded by this expedition to collect data on Polar bear distribution along the transect.  These distributions are expected to change as climate warming accelerates, and the presence or absence of bears along the transect line to the north pole will be recorded as baseline data for later investigation.  Footprints collected will be classified by individual and sex, and then fed into the newly established Polar bear footprint database to further develop and refine the species FIT algorithm.  The expedition photographer, Martin Hartley, will take digital images of any Polar bear footprints seen.  A voice recording tag on his camera will link essential data relating to the track numbers, date, animal information etc to the image, and an integral GPS will record the position of the track onto the image.  Using the WildTrack photo protocol, several different footprints will be recorded in each track found, to cover the variation in footprints produced by an individual bear.  These images will be sent, at the end of each day, directly to the control office in London and onto the WildTrack base in Portugal for identification and feedback.

The FIT process works in this way: Digital images of footprints are photo-optimised and standardised and exported into JMP from SAS business intelligence software (;  Landmark points are marked on the footprint at anatomical positions, and derived points automatically placed according to a pre-determined algorithm. More than one hundred measurements of distance, angle and area are then taken automatically from each footprint in customised JMP graphics window and output to a JMP data table where multivariate statistical techniques customised for FIT by WildTrack are employed to classify the footprint at the individual, gender and age-class levels.

References and further reading

Alibhai, S.K, & Jewell, Z.C. (2008a).  The development of a footprint identification technique (FIT) for censusing and monitoring Polar bear (Ursus maritimus).  Unpubl. preliminary report.

Alibhai, S.K, & Jewell, Z.C. (2008b).  WildTrack: Using footprints to monitor endangered species.  Presentation delivered at the International Workshop on Distributed Sensing and Collective Intelligence in Biodiversity Monitoring.  Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI), Kruislaan 413, 1098 SJ Amsterdam, The Netherland.  3rd-5th December 2008.

Alibhai, S.K., Jewell, Z.C. & Law P.R. (2008c). Identifying white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) by a footprint identification technique, at the individual and species levels.   Endangered Species Research 4: 219-225.

Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2007)  A census estimate of Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in the Morro de Diabo State Park, Sao Paulo State, Brazil, using the Footprint Identification Technique (FIT).  Report to P. Medici, Chair, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group.
Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2006) Individual identification, gender and age class determination for the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) using a footprint identification technique (FIT). Tapir specialist group newsletter July 2006.  Report to P. Medici, Chair, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group.

Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2002).  Response to Atkinson, du Toit, Radcliffe, Dooley and Kock.  In ‘The cost of information: should black rhinos be immobilized?’ Editorial by Boyd, I.L. In J. Zool. 258: 279-280.

Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2001). Hot under the collar: The failure of radio-collars on black rhino (Diceros bicornis). Oryx 35 (4), 284-288.

Alibhai, S.K., Jewell Z.C. & Towindo, S.S. (2001). The effects of immobilisation on fertility in female black rhino (Diceros bicornis). J. Zool. 253: 333-345

Cattet, M., Boulanger, J., Stenhouse, G.,  Powell, R.A. & Reynolds-Hogland, M.J. 2008.  An evaluation of long-term capture effects in Ursids: Implications for wildlife welfare and research. J. of Mammalogy, 89 (4): 973-990.

Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J. & Stirling, I.  (2004)  Polar bears in a warming climate. Integrative and Comparative Biology 2004 44(2):163-176; doi:10.1093/icb/44.2.163
Dyck, M.G., Soon, W., Baydack, R.K., Legates, D.R., Baliunas, S., Ball, T.F. &  Hancock, L.O. 2007. Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change: are warming spring air temperatures the ‘ultimate’ survival control factor?  Ecol. Complexity 4, 73-84. doi:10.1016/j.ecocom.2007.03.002.

Himmelsbach, V. (2008).  Into the wild: A database project like no other. Article in IT world Canada.

IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 996 pp.

IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group 2006. In Polar bears: Proceedings of the 14th Working Meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, Edited by J. Aars, N.J. Lunn, and A.E. Derocher. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K.

Jewell, Z.C. & Alibhai, S.K. (in press).  Ethics and the immobilization of animals.  In the encyclopedia of animal rights and animal welfare.  Greenwood Publishing Group.

Jewell, Z.C., Alibhai S.K., &  Law, P.R. (2001). Censusing and monitoring black rhino (Diceros bicornis) using an objective spoor (footprint) identification technique, J. Zool. 254: 1-16

Murray, D. L. & Fuller, T. K.( 2000) A Critical Review of  the Effects of  Marking on the Biology of Vertebrates, in Research Techniques in Animal Ecology: Controversies and Consequences, Boitani, L. & Fuller, T. K. (eds.), Columbia University Press, NY.

Schliebe, S. Wiig, Ø., Derocher, A. & Lunn, N. 2006. Ursus maritimus. In: IUCN 2007. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

 Stirling, I. and Parkinson, C.L. 2006. Possible effects of climate warming on selected  populations of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic 59: 261-275.


May 2, 2009

People living in the UK tend to be obsessed by the weather, writes operations manager Gaby Dean.  But thousands of kilometres away from the prospect of decent shelter, let alone a hot bath, what the weather is doing becomes something of an obsession.  Especially now, as the team await a re-supply that’s been delayed for several days.

Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley have seen it all, weather wise, on this expedition.

“In February, when we set off, the wind chill factor was fairly permanently, adding considerably to the -40 degrees Celsius ambient temperatures,” Hadow reminds us.  “Now conditions have improved somewhat, it feels safer to look at the impact that had on us.  We were all battling hypothermia.  Our brains definitely slowed down a little.  It was very, very tough.”

Now though, with temperatures a comparatively balmy -20 degrees C, the team are occasionally able to use the weather to their advantage.

“If the wind drops, we can get our clothes dry by hanging them on ski poles,” says Martin Hartley, who had a particular problem with a wet, frozen sleeping bag in the first half of the expedition.   “We dig the poles deep into the ice and hang our jackets over them.  Towards the end of the day, there’s even a slight warmth in the sun that gets them almost dry.”

At the other extreme, however, are the storms that on a couple of occasions have kept the Ice Team tent bound for days at a time.

“Then the fear is that the whole tent will blow away with us inside it,” says Hadow.  “Given that we’re on moving ice and not solid ground in the first place, that creates a feeling of extreme vulnerability.”

The tent remains anchored to the ice in part because of the weight of the three explorers and their kit pinning it down from the inside. The three try to catch up on sleep during storms, but extreme gusts of winds ensure that sleep is fitful.

In recent days, as they progressed northwards until finding the ice pan suitable for the re-supply plane, the team has enjoyed the spectacle of the unique Arctic weather.

“Today the clouds were dancing and shimmering”, says Daniels.  “There was a prism effect with colour in the clouds.  It wasn’t the northern lights, but it had a heavenly, surreal feeling to it.  It was odd, extraordinary.  It was snowing too, which is rare, strange though that may seem up here.  I can’t do it justice with words but I felt privileged to be a part of it”.

Attention to detail

April 30, 2009    

It’s easy to think that staying focused on the big picture is the primary key to success when it comes to successfully completing an ambitious project like the Catlin Arctic Survey, writes commentator Paul Deegan.

But in reality, once the expedition is up and running, it’s the little things that make all the difference.

I served as one of Pen’s two UK base camp managers during his successful South Pole expedition a few years ago. I remember working in Pen’s office a few days before departure. One of the tasks I attended to involved using duct tape to seal small plastic bags packed with food and supplies. Pen noticed I was taping up each bag in the normal way by pressing down on a square of the sticky, silver tape.

Pen showed me a different method. He created a glue-free flap by sticking a half-inch of one edge of the tape against itself. This enabled the bag to be easily opened whilst wearing mittens.

At the time, I found this extra step in the process somewhat frustrating. The clock was running down, I had dozens of bags to secure, and we had a hard deadline to meet. But on reflection, I realised that the extra time that this additional procedure swallowed up would not just save Pen precious minutes in sub-zero temperatures. It might just save his fingers too.

Without a big vision, nothing worthwhile would ever begin. Without attention to detail, nothing valuable would ever be completed.

Atop a mountain of chunks of ice
© WWF / Martin Hartley, Catlin Arctic Survey Enlarge

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