On the Right Track

 

Eight of Conservation Nation’s wildlife projects have included the purchase of high-tech tracking equipment. And that’s just us. Trackers are everywhere—being used in studies on species ranging from urban coyotes to invasive insects.

 

So, why the tracking craze? The data gathered has led to revelations about population sizes, animal movements and, crucially, about how endangered species are impacted by people.

 

That’s why it’s so important for conservationists to know about even seemingly small obstacles to animal movement—to understand how animals are coping with challenges, such as raised land, reduced access to water and habitat segmentation. By following a single creature, we learn how to protect it, and by extension, how we can save its whole species. In some cases, we can even learn how we might better preserve entire ecosystems, working with local governments and landowners to enact wildlife-friendly policies impacting countless species.

 

A 2018 giraffe study in Kenya is an example of how this technology can be essential to conservation efforts. Conservation Nation purchased five solar-powered GPS prototype trackers for the project. The prototypes were designed to fit on one of a giraffe’s ossicones (the two hornlike protrusions on top of a giraffe’s head). With the data gathered, scientists learned that in 2019 alone, four of the studied giraffes had been poached. It turned out herds were moving across private lands—instead of protected lands—and were more vulnerable to hunters.

 

Of course, it’s not easy to implement change, even once we know how animals are faring in the wild. But with meaningful data, Smithsonian scientists can work with local communities to plan land development more thoughtfully. They can focus their efforts on specific communities, educating and supporting those who might poach because intense poverty has led them to feel they have no other choice. In some cases, they can offer compensation if animals like cougars or wolves eat farmers’ livestock—preventing those farmers from needlessly killing these endangered predators. Collaborating with governments and landowners, they can establish “wildlife corridors” through private lands, preserving natural migratory patterns.

 

 

 

Even with the benefits of tracking information, researchers have seen the technology’s downside, too; poachers have, in some cases, successfully hacked conservationists’ signals to track endangered animals, leading to increased calls for the encryption and protection of location data. There have even been reports of conservationists embedding GPS trackers into rhino horns, so if animals are tragically poached, authorities will at least have a way to find those who take the horns.

 

Results aren’t always so bleak. A 2017 Conservation Nation-funded study tracked six pelicans along the Chesapeake Bay with high-tech, solar-powered transmitters. The species’ numbers had plummeted due to pesticide use, but since that pesticide was banned, a resurgent pelican population was found nesting on marshy islands along the bay. Scientists were then able to trace the birds’ unique paths as they migrated, registering their stops to perch on manmade structures like factories and power plants, even as they ventured as far south as Cuba. With these insights, they will be able to better understand how to encourage population growth as the species continues to rebound.

 

Autumn-Lynn Harrison is a Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center research ecologist. In 2018, she saw the population thriving firsthand, and said being able to track its movements with high-tech tags was invaluable. “Seeing so many birds nesting on the islands illustrated just how much progress we have made toward the recovery of this species, and of the Bay.”

 

Autumn-Lynn Harrison.

 

And as trackers get smaller and better adapted to different animals’ physiology, results will only improve. Newer, lighter trackers are less likely to fall off, encumber the animal or impact its behavior. Just last year, Conservation Nation funded tracker technology for projects focusing on Eastern meadowlarks in North America and Lowland tapirs in Paraguay. With the results from these studies and others like it, we will be better equipped to protect wildlife and the habitats they call home.

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GIVE TO GLOBAL HEALTH

 

Support the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program.

 

Led by Dr. Suzan Murray, Global Health scientists travel the world to investigate connections between people and wildlife. The team conducts life-saving research, performs community outreach and combats zoonotic threats.

 

The central philosophy of the program is this: the health of all species, including humans, are linked. Recent outbreaks of diseases, such as COVID19 (coronavirus) and SARS, remind us of how important this critical work is.

 

In 2019, Conservation Nation funded a Global Health Program workshop to educate those in the field about saving endangered rhinos in Kenya. This year, we’re announcing two Conservation Nation Global Health projects: a study focusing on diseases carried by orangutans in Borneo and a pangolin campaign implemented throughout Asia.

 

Please consider giving a donation to benefit the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program, and the amazing team dedicated to keeping us all—human and animal alike—as healthy as possible.

 

Donate Now

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Helping Rescued Orangutans in Borneo
An orangutan poses for the camera.

Helping Rescued Orangutans in Borneo

Borneo is home to the largest population of critically endangered orangutans in the world: about 55,000. But those numbers are falling. It’s predicted that by 2025, that number will drop to 47,000.  Forest fires and fragmentation have ravaged much of the species’ key habitat, and hundreds of wild orangutans have been trafficked as pets. Smithsonian researchers are partnering with a rehabilitation center in the West Kalimantan province that has rescued more than 250 orangutans, with 85 currently on track to be reintroduced to the wild. With your help, scientists will study why certain orangutans disproportionately catch diseases, namely malaria, so they can develop key diagnostics and standardized mitigation procedures. With these insights, rescued orangutans, and the wild populations they are rejoining, will be less vulnerable to dangerous diseases.

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Saving Pangolins in Peril throughout Asia
Pangolin hunting for ants.

Saving Pangolins in Peril throughout Asia

The most trafficked mammal in the world is the critically endangered pangolin, largely because those who practice traditional eastern medicine mistakenly believe the scales have healing properties. To help the species’ numbers grow, Smithsonian veterinarians want to help save the pangolin across Southeast Asia by purchasing ultrasound equipment and special hormone kits to study pangolin reproduction, equipping and supplying a pangolin rehabilitation outpost, providing hands-on training to those caring for pangolins in the field, and launching campaigns to educate local communities about the value of protecting the species. By tackling the crisis on multiple fronts in multiple countries, we can make a true impact in saving these endangered pangolins.

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Monitoring Rare Tigers in Bangladesh
wild cat, big red tiger on nature

Monitoring Rare Tigers in Bangladesh

Scientists estimate that in 2015 there were just 106 Bengal tigers living in Bangladesh on the coastline of the Indian ocean. Five years later, things are only getting worse for them. Because of climate change, the mangrove forest where these tigers live will likely be underwater within the next three decades. With our support, Smithsonian scientists want to research the species as much as possible—and as soon as possible. They need to analyze DNA samples gathered from hundreds of tiger fecal samples collected in the wild, improving their understanding of the existing population’s size, female to male ratio, genetic diversity, movement patterns and home range. With our funding, these findings will be integral to preserving this endangered Bengal tiger population as its habitat vanishes.

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Setting the Stage for Rewilding the Guam Kingfisher
Rare bird - Guam Kingfisher

Setting the Stage for Rewilding the Guam Kingfisher

The Guam kingfisher is extinct in the wild. For now. Scientists have been caring for a small flock of these rare birds at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. To get one step closer to rewilding the species, they need to launch a study gathering key information about how they can successfully breed them. Kingfishers can be difficult to match with a mate, so by learning more about the species’ hormones, they will be better able to encourage successful pairings. That way, they can bolster the population with a new generation of chicks, reintroducing a flock to the wild within the next few years.

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One Family Works to Tip the Scales for Pangolins

 

Talk about family values.

 

When the Hanauers – Larry, Julie, and son, C.J. – decided they were going to make a difference for endangered pangolins in Vietnam, they weren’t kidding.

 

After launching a Conservation Nation fundraising page, they’ve collected more than $6,800 to purchase medical equipment for the species, mostly through a private fundraising event. And all their efforts culminated in a week-long trip to Vietnam this past December to the Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) rehabilitation center at Cuc Phuong National Park. There, they provided support as 30 pangolins, who had been rescued from poachers, received life-saving veterinary care.

 

“For a week, we cleaned the pangolins’ enclosures, changed their bedding, collected data on their behavior, and fed them frozen ants and ant eggs,” Larry Hanauer says. “We watched the wildlife center’s volunteer veterinary staff treat the wounds the pangolins suffered in captivity and nurse them back to health.”

 

Photo provided by Larry Hanauer

 

Larry Hanauer says it was an amazing experience, and since their visit, 14 of the recovered pangolins have been released back into the wild.

 

At a small gathering of the Hanauers’ family, friends and fellow conservationists in October, Smithsonian researcher Marc Valitutto gave a presentation on pangolins, including their plight and plans to stop their slaughter at the hands of poachers. Dr. Valitutto has long been on the frontlines of pangolin conservation efforts, having conducted much of his research with SVW, and in other locations like Myanmar and Thailand.

 

A big part of the problem, he says, is that in some parts of the world, pangolin scales are considered medicinal when, in fact, they’re not. That’s why he’s grateful for the support of people like the Hanauers, who are willing to go the extra mile not only to fundraise, but also to help educate others about this species on the brink of extinction. Hopefully, the more people understand why pangolins are valued by illegal traders, the more can be done to protect the species—by working with governments, as well as launching educational campaigns in the communities buying these scales.

 

“Grassroots fundraising has the most potential for long-term impact on pangolin conservation as it offers more than just money,” Dr. Valitutto says, “but instead it creates a movement of dedicated individuals that acknowledge the issue and make it a personal goal to prioritize this species in their minds, hearts and conversations. With this level of commitment, we have the momentum we need to save pangolins.”

 

C.J. and Julie helping out at the pangolin rehabilitation center in Vietnam | Photos provided by Larry Hanauer

 

 

 

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Morgan’s Note from the Field

 

PhD student and cheetah researcher Morgan Maly is in Namibia.  Thanks to Conservation Nation, she’s collecting scat samples from the wild that will help experts better understand cheetah diets, strengthening care of the species as its population numbers fall. Here’s a message from Morgan about her progress. 

 

 

It is HOT here at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), and the rainy season threatens to begin any day now. But luck is on my side, because the rains have held off since the first cheetah poop in my study dropped. With only two more days of sampling, I might just get lucky and avoid any rain messing with my samples. I managed to collect eight, fresh cheetah scats in only three days (this has to be a record). I’m running the same pilot study I performed at SCBI, where I collect fresh fecal samples and subsample them every 24 hours for 7 days to see how the fecal microbiota changes over time.

 

Why am I doing this experiment again in Namibia? Mainly to see how the hot humid summer of northern Virginia compares to the hot dry summer in Namibia. Wild fecal samples are very difficult to find, especially fresh samples. Scat dries out much faster here in Namibia, so I want to be sure that when Tim and his scat dog team at the CCF find cheetah poop out in the wild that I can use it for the microbial analysis. The results of this study will tell me how long a cheetah fecal sample is good for in the wild. The older the poop remains viable, the more samples I am able to utilize, and the stronger the diet comparison study will be.

 

Once I have collected and extracted my samples, I will fly back to the Smithsonian to sequence the samples and analyze the data. This will give me the answer to how old a Namibian cheetah poop can be. With this new information, I will return to CCF to complete the sample collection from resident cheetahs and wild cheetahs for the diet comparison study. In the diet comparison study, I will investigate the differences in gut microbial diversity between cheetahs consuming one of five diets. I will compare the CCF and wild cheetah samples to samples I’ve collected from multiple zoos in North America. This study will provide important information regarding the cheetah diet and gastrointestinal health, and improve the management and welfare of cheetahs.

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A Shrike Story

 

A tagged loggerhead shrike chick is spotted in Winchester, Virginia. Seems like no big deal, right? Think again. That one songbird only made its way to this spot because of massive conservation efforts—and with high-tech tracking equipment provided by Conservation Nation. Thanks to these nano tags, researchers invested in bolstering this depleted species will know how the chicks are faring as they begin their migration south.

 

Efforts to help the species begin at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), where loggerhead shrikes are matched based on genetic suitability. Then, they are diligently monitored and studied by staff, with every aspect of their care coordinated to ensure chicks are safely hatched. When young, healthy shrikes are ready to leave the nest, researchers bring them all the way to special sites in Canada for release in their natural habitat. There, the chicks are allowed to come and go freely from field pens as they adjust to life in the wild. Finally, the chicks begin their natural migration route down the east coast.

 

According to SCBI animal keeper Leighann Cline, the trip north to Canada is challenging, but ultimately necessary.

 

“Loggerhead shrikes are very high-stress birds, and the drive to the release site is over 10 hours. The birds are more calm at night, so we gather the birds from within their enclosures at SCBI in the dark with headlamps, load them into crates in a large cargo van and drive through the middle of the night to the border.”

 

Cline started working at SCBI with a background in Wildlife Rehabilitation, specializing in songbird care. She says that, like so many grassland species, the shrike’s population in the wild has declined most likely because of a combination of factors: habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, poor weather conditions and competition with other birds.

 

 

How can you help? The loggerhead shrike is native to Virginia and much of Eastern North America. Local birdwatchers can make a difference, as the more shrike movements are reported in the wild on sites like ebird.com, the better idea researchers have about their routes and behaviors.

 

“These reports are closely monitored, and when a shrike shows up in an area they have not previously been reported, biologists will try to find it and tag it for future monitoring,” Cline says.

 

And for the birder lucky enough to spot a shrike eating its dinner in the wild, they might be in for a gruesome treat themselves—a firsthand observation of this shrike, otherwise known as the “butcher bird,” impaling its prey on a branch in the style of a kebob. It makes sense, then, that according to Cline, ideal habitats for the shrike are “grazed pasture land with thorny shrubs or trees sparsely dispersed.”

 

Landowners in key areas also can install a tracking tower on their property to conserve critical habitats by working with groups like Virginia Working Landscapes, which is based at SCBI.

 

Already conservation efforts for this species have united collaborators across the country who call themselves the Loggerhead Shrike Working Group. Additional partners include Wildlife Preservation Canada, the Virginia Department of Game and Fisheries and Virginia Working Landscapes.

 

Conservation Nation funded 30 nano tags for released shrikes. In the past, we also funded the construction of a radio telemetry tower linking a collaborative network of tracking data, tracing the movements of small animals like birds, bats and insects.

 

A clutch of Loggerhead shrikes at SCBI in 2018 | Photos provided by Leighann Cline

 

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Rhino workshop a success

 

Thanks to your support, our recent rhino workshop in Kenya brought together global conservation leaders with those saving rhinos directly in the field. The successful four-day event included presentations from the world’s premiere leaders in veterinary care, featuring both in-depth lectures and practical field demonstrations. Connections made and lessons learned at this workshop will make a difference by strengthening rhino care in the region.

 

 

It’s day three of our conference in Laikipia, Kenya—and students aren’t sitting in a classroom. They’re out in the field, watching a Kenya Wildlife Service field veterinarian aim his dart gun from a jeep to tag a female zebra grazing in the fields some distance away. The dart hits its target, and once the zebra is tranquilized, the jeep draws alongside. Experts then demonstrate how to correctly read and interpret monitoring devices to ensure the safety of the animal under anesthesia, and collect samples. Unharmed, the zebra trots to rejoin her herd.

 

Tranquilizing wild animals like this zebra is tricky enough—imagine if field vets have to safely immobilize a 2,000-pound rhino to provide necessary care. That’s why Conservation Nation funded this workshop—to make this kind of in-the-field-training possible and to connect leaders in vet care with those on the ground.

 

According to James Hassell, a veterinarian and scientist with the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and organizer of the conference that was held at Mpala Research Centre and Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy, demonstrations like these are important for conservation work in the region, and not just for rhinos.

 

 

A plane was used to spot animals from the air, and attendees spent time at the conservancy learning how to care for rhinos | Photos provided by James Hassell

 

“The practical skills taught during this workshop are transferable to many species of wild animal,” he says.

 

One of the most important sessions gave participants the opportunity to learn more about how to study deceased animals. If field vets are better able to diagnose why a rhino might have died, Hassell says, efforts to protect at-risk populations can be focused.

 

And thanks to Conservation Nation support, postmortem kits have been distributed as well, ensuring those on the ground have the tools and the knowledge to make a difference for rhinos in the region. Efforts like these – connecting experts, sharing the best information and providing needed supplies – are crucial to saving species like the Eastern black rhino from extinction.

 

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