© Wildlife 3D Tracking 2018

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Non-Profit Organisation registered in both Belgium (n° 0670/848/733) & South Africa (n° 2017/283877/08)

 

info@wildlife3dtracking.org

Our Vision

In the past, running was essential to our survival. About 2 million years ago, humans’ ancestors practised persistence hunting, which consists of running down prey to exhaustion. The ability to run over long distances may have been crucial to the evolution of our anatomy. Beyond the running performance, persistence hunting also involves the ability to read animal tracks. The most advanced form of tracking implies cognitive thinking and the use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning that may well be the origin of all sciences.

The practical application of scientific knowledge has given birth to technology, such as the use of fire, without which humankind would have gone extinct. Paradoxically, science and technology is now a major threat to biodiversity, and therefore, to our own existence. The impact is so important that the world and its ~7.5 billion humans may have actually entered a new human-influenced geological era, the Anthropocene. Are we being hit by the curse of Prometheus? According to Greek Mythology, the Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to the humans. Enraged by his misplaced loyalty, Zeus punished Prometheus by enchaining him to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver for eternity. Was this the price to pay for Prometheus to become the creator of humankind and culture?

Human activities have accelerated biodiversity loss to a level that may be considered the sixth mass extinction. Today’s species extinction rate is 1,000 times the natural background rate and is likely to reach 10,000 times that in the future. This would be the only extinction caused by a single living species – humans. The main drivers are habitat degradation and loss, habitat fragmentation, overexploitation, spread of invasive species, pollution, and global climate change.

African elephants and African buffaloes in a riverbed of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa.

Therefore, it is crucial to monitor animal species in order to assess both their distributions and the status of their populations over space and time. Monitoring enables us to answer the most commonly asked questions about wildlife populations: 

  • How many animals are there?

  • Where are they?

  • What is the trend of their populations?

The answers to these basic questions are fundamental to the achievement of any conservation, research and management objectives linked to wildlife studies.

Using tracks is often considered as a non-invasive, cost- and time-effective way of gaining information about species that are difficult to observe. Modern-day hunter-gatherers such as the San People of southern Africa still practise persistence hunting. Their tracking skills are exceptional in terms of recognising tracks and following trails - the continuous sequence of tracks made by the same individual. Because of these abilities, San trackers were involved in behavioural studies of various large carnivores. Another study showed that a group of four San trackers were 98% correct in interpreting the species, age, sex, individual, and activity from tracks.

 

In order to reach more practicality and quantification, the ancestral skills of the traditional trackers were slowly substituted by track measurements. Tracks are either measured directly in the field or on their replicates. The recording of tracks from the field usually involves drawings or photographs that are limited to two-dimensions (2D). For more than three decades, tracks were used to monitor tiger populations in India. Regularly, thousands of rangers were sent out across the country to draw or photograph the hind left paw’s tracks of purportedly each and every single tiger. Recorded tracks were then subjectively compared to determine a specific number of individuals. This type of practice has been highly criticised because the variations linked to manipulator bias and substrate were not considered and individual tiger identification was highly subjective.

African lion's tracks in Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa.

Despite all of these, we deeply believe that tracking cannot be buried for good due to past misuse in wildlife monitoring. Tracking has excited since long before the emergence of anatomically modern humans. Even more, it may have played a critical role in the evolution of our anatomy and intellect. Tracking is in our genes!

Other studies aimed at objectively identifying individuals using measurements extracted from tracks of species such as cheetahs, mountain lions, snow leopards, tigers, and black and white rhinoceroses. However, all these examples were limited to 2D - therefore lacking the crucial information about depth.

Digital 3D models of an African lion's paw and track. 

Our vision is to use recent advances in three-dimensional (3D) technologies, morphometric and statistical analyses to revive the ancestral art of tracking for the sake of nature conservation and traditional trackers. Unfortunately, tracking is a dying skill because our ‘fight or die’ society has not been shaped to accommodate the fate of the last hunter-gatherer communities. The loss of indigenous knowledge means the loss of unique knowledge about ways of living sustainably. What would be a tougher curse than losing the mechanism that has made us humans? We believe in a synergic interaction between indigenous knowledge - particularly the art of tracking - and modern science. One can benefit from the other, leading to a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

References:

  1. Alibhai S, Jewell Z, Evans J (2017) The challenge of monitoring elusive large carnivores: An accurate and cost-effective tool to identify and sex pumas (Puma concolor) from footprints. PloS one 12:e0172065.

  2. Alibhai SK, Jewell ZC, Law PR (2008) A footprint technique to identify white rhino Ceratotherium simum at individual and species levels. Endangered Species Research 4:205–218.

  3. Carrier DR (1984) The energetic paradox of human running and hominid evolution. Current Anthropology 483–495.

  4. Gese EM (2001) Monitoring of terrestrial carnivore populations. In: Gittleman JL, Funk S, Macdonald D, Wayne RK (eds) Carnivore Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 372–396

  5. Grigione MM, Burman P, Bleich VC, Pierce BM (1999) Identifying individual mountain lions Felis concolor by their tracks: refinement of an innovative technique. Biological Conservation 88:25–32.

  6. Grimsdell JJR (1978) Ecological monitoring. African Wildlife Foundation, Nairobi

  7. Jewell ZC, Alibhai SK, Evans JW (2014) Monitoring mountain lion using footprints: A robust new technique. Wild Felid Monitor 7:26–27.

  8. Jewell ZC, Alibhai SK, Law PR (2001) Censusing and monitoring black rhino (Diceros bicornis) using an objective spoor (footprint) identification technique. Journal of Zoology 254:1–16.

  9. Jewell ZC, Alibhai SK, Weise F, et al (2016) Spotting Cheetahs: Identifying Individuals by Their Footprints. Journal of Visualized Experiments e54034–e54034.

  10. Karanth KU, Nichols JD, Seidenstricker J, et al (2003) Science deficiency in conservation practice: the monitoring of tiger populations in India. Animal Conservation 6:141–146.

  11. Liebenberg L (1990) The art of tracking, the origin of science. David Philip, Cape Town

  12. Liebenberg L (2006) Persistence hunting by modern hunter-gatherers. Current Anthropology 47:1017–1026.

  13. Marchal AFJ, Lejeune P, De Bruyn PJN (2016) Virtual plaster cast: digital 3D modelling of lion paws and tracks using close‐range photogrammetry. Journal of Zoology 300:111–119

  14. Marchal AFJ, Lejeune P, De Bruyn PJN (2017) Identification of the anteroposterior and mediolateral position of lion paws and tracks using 3D geometric morphometrics. African Journal of Wildlife Research 47:106–113

  15. Nakashima D, Prott L, Bridgewater P (2000) Tapping into the world’s wisdom. UNESCO Sources. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001202/120200e Accessed 28 June 2017.

  16. Pimm SL, Jenkins CN, Abell R, et al (2014) The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science 344:1246752.

  17. Pimm SL, Raven P (2000) Biodiversity: extinction by numbers. Nature 403:843–845.

  18. Riordan P (1998) Unsupervised recognition of individual tigers and snow leopards from their footprints. Animal Conservation 1:253–262.

  19. Sharma S, Jhala Y, Sawarkar VB (2005) Identification of individual tigers (Panthera tigris) from their pugmarks. Journal of Zoology 267:9–18.

  20. Smallwood KS, Fitzhugh EL (1993) A rigorous technique for identifying individual mountain lions Felis concolor by their tracks. Biological Conservation 65:51–59.

  21. Smillie S (2016) In the past we knew how to run for our livelihood. Business Day. http://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/life/2016-11-08-in-the-past-we-knew-how-to-run-for-our-livelihood/  Accessed 08 November 2016

  22. Washburn SL (1978) The evolution of man. Scientific American 239:194–208.

  23. Wilson GJ, Delahay RJ (2001) A review of methods to estimate the abundance of terrestrial carnivores using field signs and observation. Wildlife Research 28:151–164.