Mans best friend to the rescue, it’s tortoise research this time

Animals assisting humans accomplish tasks is by no means a new feat. From guarding houses to assisting with long distance travel, animals have been lending us a helping hand for generations. Even scientists have used animals for rather spectacular feats ranging from the German company APOPO training rats to detect mines in Mozambique to mites and weevils controlling the expansion of water hyacinth in inland lakes and dams. This latest story comes from South Africa’s Western Cape province, where scientists studying the critically endangered geometric tortoise are being assisted by trained canines. Helping find the tortoises, and thereby establishing an idea of the population size and distribution, is the first step in understanding this species as a whole, and thereby helping to conserve one of earth’s top 100 threatened species. JB

Geometric tortoise South African experts have gained the help of man’s best friend to carry out conservation detection work on the endangered geometric tortoise.

“The conservation detection field is very new in South Africa with this specific project being the first live target conservation detection work of its kind ever done in the country,” CapeNature spokesman Justin Lawrence told Sapa.

The geometric tortoise is South Africa’s most endangered terrestrial tortoise and the status of this species was recently upgraded to critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It is now the third most endangered land tortoise in the world, and has been listed as one of the top 100 most threatened species on Earth.

This species is found in the Cape lowlands and is mainly threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation, frequent fires, alien vegetation encroachment, and a probable increase in predation pressure.

“In order to monitor and conserve this species, conservationists must have vital information about the size of the population and its presence or absence in suitable habitat,” explained Lawrence. “Getting this type of information requires many, many man hours and this is a limiting factor when gathering data about this species.”

Lawrence said cryptic colouration and the sedentary behaviour of the tortoise created problems when conducting counts. “They are incredibly difficult to spot from a visual perspective,” he said.

In the United States, the use of conservation detection dogs had been demonstrated to be safe, effective and cost efficient. Dogs were investigated for use as an alternative to humans who were limited to visual clues for finding tortoises. The dogs use their sense of smell to detect geometric tortoises in their natural environment.

In South Africa, the conservation detection dog pilot project began in 2012 and became operational in September last year. Presently, there is one dog handler team conducting field work in the Western Cape. The first dog in the country to carry out this sort of work is a two-year-old Malinois (Belgian Shepherd Dog) named Brin. She was trained over six months by CapeNature’s ecological co-ordinator Vicki Hudson. “Brin loves her ball more than anything else in the world, even food,” said Lawrence. “This is her reward for sniffing out tortoises and she is happy to do this over and over again at any time or place.”

Since its implementation, the team has successfully carried out search and rescues, presence/absence surveys, species diversity surveys, and total population estimates. Despite being a new field, Lawrence said it was highly specialised and required distinctive skills to be successful.


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