Liana Zanette, a Western University biology professor, has been awarded a Distinguished Research Professorship for her research on poaching in South Africa.
Zanette developed a technology that interrogates the activity of wildlife in their natural habitat, measuring their fear of various predators, including humans.
When an animal passes the instrument, it plays a 10-second audio clip of sounds associated with a predator. A camera then records the animal's response.
"We measure fear in their behaviour responses, the main one being fleeing, running away. We’ll also [study] more subtle things like how vigilant they are,” explained Zanette.
In areas of the world where poaching is prevalent, humans are considered to be predators for many species. Zanette’s research thus far has demonstrated that, in certain regions, wildlife’s fear of humans can exceed that of their natural predators. The researchers assume that these regions would have higher levels of poaching in comparison with regions where humans are feared less.
“If what we find is that animals do respond to humans according to how lethal humans are,… then we should be able to go out to an area and determine how much poaching might be going on,” said Zanette.
This study has significant implications for identifying species most threatened by poaching, as well as the regions most affected by illegal hunting, and it will enable protected-area managers to effectively direct anti-poaching resources.
Currently, questionnaires are used to estimate poaching levels in various regions; however, Zanette explained that this method is unreliable.
“The main technique [for quantifying poaching] is people will give out questionnaires, and they’ll ask local people if they’ve committed a crime," she said. "Not surprisingly, people lie about that. But animals don’t lie."
Zanette worked in collaboration with professor David Macdonald, director of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and professor Craig Packer, a world-renowned lion expert and professor in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences, to test this newly-developed technology. In partnership with the Association of Private Nature Reserves, this quantification method was tested in South Africa.
Zanette’s work in South Africa will be featured on an episode of CBC’s The Nature of Things called “Spying on Animals.” The episode, which will focus on how camera technology is revolutionizing the study of wildlife, will air on Nov. 4 at 8 p.m.