Q: What are the advantages and hazards of radio-collaring wild animals, particularly elephants?

Asked by Rajeshwari

Answer from Shekar Dattatri:

Radio-collaring of animals is a tried and tested method of studying free-ranging wild animals that has been in practice for several decades. It is primarily used for tracking the movement and activity patterns of the tagged animal, with the signals being sent to a handheld device or to a computer via a satellite. It is often the only method that is available for studying the movement and activity patterns of a secretive species like the tiger or a wide-ranging species like the elephant. Information obtained from the use of radio telemetry is of high scientific and conservation value. However, just like with any other activity, the process of tranquilizing a wild animal and fitting it with a radio or satellite collar carries a certain amount of risk to the animal. While professional tranquilizing teams usually have strict protocols and take necessary precautions, mishaps can sometimes happen, even resulting in the death of an animal. This is quite rare and is no reason to discontinue the practice (thousands of people die of road accidents every year, but that doesn’t stop us from using roads or automobiles). All mishaps should be carefully analysed so that lessons can be learnt from them.

Radio collaring a wild elephant can be extremely difficult because of various factors including the terrain that the animal inhabits. While the drugs used for tranquilization are generally extremely safe, the interval between the tranquilizer dart hitting the animal and the animal being safely sedated can lead to tricky circumstances. For instance, the darted animal can go down a steep slope and take an incapacitating or fatal fall; or enter a deep water body and drown; or, even, vanish into thick forest and die due to over heating. Generally, thanks to protocols and precautions, none of this happens.

Once the collar is fitted, the animal is administered an antidote and recovers from the tranquilization process with remarkable speed. The collar, which is a tiny fraction of the animal’s body weight, does not adversely affect the animal. For the next three years or so (or as long as the battery lasts), the radio collared animal can be followed and tracked by researchers, yielding extremely valuable information.

Unfortunately, in the rare event that an animal dies during the tranquilization process – despite the best efforts of those involved – it leads to media hysteria and a witch hunt, which is a huge deterrent for further research efforts. While negligence cannot be condoned, the occasional death of an animal despite the best efforts of the team involved, even if it is an endangered species, should be treated as an acceptable risk and discussed in a mature manner. It must be noted that even the simplest human activity, such as crossing a road or switching on an electrical appliance at home, carries its own risks. This should be borne in mind while reporting on problems that occur in the course of wildlife research.