What Do Lions Have In Common With Teenagers? OMG, You’ll Srsly LOL!

Ah, the life of a lion roaming the African savanna: sleep, chase a wildebeest, play with your cubs, fight a little with that one uppity lioness, yawn, catch a gazelle, eat the gazelle, drink at the watering hole, sleep some more and…send a text message? Yep, it’s happening in Kenya, where conservationists are now getting automated SMS messages from GPS-enabled collars on the increasingly threatened animals. Unlike traditional texting from your garden-variety teenager, though, these messages aren’t filled with LOLs, gossip and the teen angst du jour, but up-to-the-minute location information to allow researchers to track the lions’ movements in greater detail than ever possible before.

It’s an effort called the Lion Guardians project, run by Living with Lions, a conservation research group of seven scientists and 34 Maasai warriors working in cooperation with other conservation groups. According to the Living with Lions website, lion numbers in Africa are decreasing at an alarming rate: “Until recently scientists believed that there were 100-200,000 lions living in Africa, but current information suggests that the number has dropped dramatically to approximately 30,000.” Most of the remaining numbers are in protected National Parks or managed hunting areas. The precipitous drop is due, in part, to local Maasai herders who have been poisoning and spearing the lions to prevent them from preying on their livestock. According to the website, just in the area in which they’re concentrating their conservation effort, about 300 lions have been illegally killed between 2001 and 2010, leaving a population density less than 10 percent of what would be expected in a protected area.

So, the goal of the Lion Guardians project? Track the movement of the lions to try to proactively avoid overlap between the lions’ range and the herders’ current grazing areas, preventing the herders from having to to kill in order to protect their livestock investments.

Historically, tracking like this would have been done with VHF collars that emit radio signals, but that method has flaws: it requires field workers to search for the radio signal from the collar, and then record the animal’s location on a handheld GPS. Not an ideal process. A post on the Living with Lions site says, “GPS collars have fundamentally changed the way that lion research is done, in that we are able to study lion movements in great detail in areas where it is usually impossible to follow them.” The newer GPS collars function much like the GPS in our car or on our smartphones, using satellites to calculate the exact location of the lion once per hour and send a text message to a dedicated server, which then formats it into an email to send on to researchers. The data is then made available on an open-source satellite map, displaying the lions’ movements and supplying the ability to see when a lion may be getting too close to a livestock herd.

The GPS technology is obviously superior (and more exciting, from the conservationist’s standpoint), but cost is a barrier. The GPS collars, made by Ground Lab (a U.S. based company) and Vectronic Aerospace of Berlin, Germany, cost between $3000-$6000 USD, as compared to the $300 USD for the more traditional VHF collars.  They have only been fitted to 10 lions so far, but conservation groups like Living with Lions are hoping the funding becomes available to buy more.

The whole “lions sending text messages” thing made me wonder if there were other places modern technology was being used to aid in wildlife conservation. And, one Google search later, this post on the Earth-Touch blog answered that question with a resounding yes. Some examples are:

All these amazing applications for modern technology toward the greater end of conserving and protecting our world’s threatened species sort of make the games of Words With Friends or Angry Birds I play on my iPhone seem somewhat…shallow. Where else have you heard of modern technology being used for wildlife conservation?

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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