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How training your rhino to “give paw” could help the species

A few years ago Kolmårdens eager to do more as a zoo for conservation of endangered species grew stronger. Kolmården wanted to have concrete results to present to our guests. At the same time the reports of rhino poaching increased rapidly and as a zoo with a 50 year history of keeping rhinos, this felt very relevant for Kolmården. As a result, in 2014 we teamed up with researchers at the local Linköping University who were in the upstart of the Ngulia Project. Ngulia is located in Kenya, and once this area was known as the “Rhino valley” with thousands of rhinos calling it their home. Now, only 100 individuals were left and something had to be done to stop the decline. There were already park rangers on site patrolling the area but the communication between them and headquarters was not efficient enough.

 

Namakula, a white rhino in Kolmården Wildlife Park, Sweden

 

Researchers from the university started to develop a communication platform in a smart phone app. With the app, the rangers could easily register a sighting and details connected to it, such as mark it on the map, clock, and individual. Having the information in the app made it easier for the rangers to track the rhinos and to keep poachers away. To be used in a larger context how ever, let’s say all of Africa, we needed to get more data. Together with Linköping University, Kolmården started to develop several technical devices. The first being drones with night time surveillance systems to monitor the rhinos in the dark. These were flown over the rhino habitat in Kolmården to see the animals behavior when approached by the drones and also to test out the reliability of the systems used.

Now Kolmården had tested the first systems that could find rhinos. Now Kolmården wanted to take the next step to keep track on them. The idea was to make a GPS-collar to place on certain important individuals. Everyone that have tried to put a collar on their rhino knows how hard it is… 🙂  Rhinos have a massive neck and this meant our GPS-tracker was going somewhere else. The Trainers at Kolmården trained one of the white rhinos, Namakula to “give paw” so that the keepers could place a bracelet with a GPS-tracker mounted on it. This was done on a several thousand kilo individual, voluntary lifting her leg and trusting her keepers enough so we could do it without sedation or immobilisation. Having a bracelet instead of a collar meant higher a risk of damages to the equipment. Actually the device broke in just a few months and a new one was made and tested with better results. Thats why a zoo is an excellent place to test these types of devices, before actually going into conservation projects in the field. If this process had been done on a wild individual it would have meant several risky immobilisations. This is also an excellent example of how zoos in a easy way can contribute to the conservation of species. Now the zoo guests can follow Namakulas movements in the enclosure on a screen in the zoo, making it easy to reach out with the project to our guests.

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