Research Challenges

The technical problems in designing a tracking solution for pangolins include:
  • The pangolin’s body shape, its hard sharp scales and movement through dense rough undergrowth or through tight hard-earthed burrows mean that any devices must be very robust and suitable attachment is difficult – collars are unlikely to stay on.
  • Attachments, eg RF telemetry tags screwed or glued to the rear dorsal scales should not restrict free movement of the overlapping scales, one over each other when the animal moves or rolls into a protective ball. (c.f. Catchco Africa’s illustrations of an RF tag being attached to a pangolin)
  • The animal spends most of its day underground in burrows or dens, out of cellular GSM network connection or GPS satellite signal acquisition, usually emerging only for a few hours at night. Device batteries should be less than say 5% of the animal’s body mass (3-16kg) so that the animal is not hampered, thus limiting battery capacity. As most electrical energy is consumed in re-acquiring a GSM network connection or in a new search for GPS satellites, then any tracking device’s lifetime will be too short if the device is constantly searching for radio connections whilst the pangolin is sleeping in a burrow.
  • The range of small RF telemetry tags is limited to about 1-2km. Manual location of a pangolin, following it at night through the bush in a harsh terrain without disturbance using the usual Yagi antenna directional location equipment is difficult and potentially dangerous.
  • If a GSM connection is used to transfer live GPS location data to a base station, then the cell coverage of the pangolin’s territory will be incomplete, as the signals to or from a low-lying animal are obscured by rocks or hills even when the pangolin is moving on the surface.
  • Tri-axial accelerometry offers potential for this application (limited again by battery capacity) and can gather additional data as well as just location fixes, e.g. on patterns of an animal’s movements and posture. However, such devices are still being developed and are not yet readily available. They require considerable customization for specific species, occasional GPS location fixes for the dead-reckoning location calculations and subsequent pattern analysis of the recorded accelerometer data.

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