Cell phone technology helps researches obtain information about animals

Researchers in Kenya and South Africa are using cell phone technology to gather information on elephants, cheetahs, leopards and other animals.

The relatively cheap tracking device includes a no-frills cell phone that is put in a weatherproof case with a GPS receiver, memory card and software to operate the system. The unit, placed on a collar, is then tied around the neck of a wild animal, according to the AP.

As the animals roam, "the GPS receives coordinates, downloads them onto the memory chip, and then every hour, the phone wakes up and sends a (short text message) of the last hour's coordinates to a central server," said Michael Joseph of Safaricom, Kenya's leading service provider, which is involved in an elephant-tracking project.

Then the phone goes to sleep again, preserving battery power.

The tagged animals can also be tracked on the Internet by software that maps their location using data sent by text messaging, said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Kenya's longest-running pachyderm research project, Save the Elephants.

The technology has enabled South Africa's researchers to save up to 60 percent in costs for tracking wildlife, said Professor Wouter van Hoven of the University of Pretoria's Center for Wildlife Management.

"The system is much more user friendly because you don't have to walk around the bush searching for the animals. I have sat around in Europe and was able to monitor animals in the mountains using a cell phone that had access to the Internet," he said.

Previously, researchers tracking tagged wildlife had to locate the targeted animals by aircraft or by car and get close to them before they could download information through VHF transmitters.

"This means if they could find the animal, they could do this maybe once a month, at high cost, of course," Douglas-Hamilton said.

The new system, however, has its limitations, mainly battery life and cell phone network coverage.

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