Studying Wildlife to Death?


Are conservationists studying some wildlife to death?

Writer Cat Urbigkit ponders the question in an interesting post on the Querencia blog about impacts of radio collars on bison and other animals. She includes pictures of collars rubbing animals’ necks raw, and wonders: Is all this really necessary?

Noting the intrusive nature of collars, Urbigkit writes:

“I long for the days of old when a naturalist/ecologist/biologist simply followed along at a discrete distance and observed an animal’s natural behaviors, taking notes and writing detailed journal entries about what was observed.”

Radio tracking has become an integral part of wildlife conservation, but what are the costs?

Certainly no one will argue that the data collected by radio telemetry can offer important information on habitat needs of elusive animals, like wolverines and grizzly bears. Similarly, radio collars can help wildlife managers determine elk calf mortality or migration routes of native trout.

Bird banding has helped us understand migration routes, and by extension, has helped shape our avian conservation strategies.

Still, are there instances when one more study is unnecessary?

Two years ago, I traveled along a remote river in Brazil’s Pantanal with a local guide. In the course of a few days, we saw five jaguars, an extraordinary sight almost anywhere but not particularly unusual on this river.

One of the jaguars we saw (pictured above) fell asleep as we watched and photographed a short distance away — a sign of a jaguar population that is not much bothered by humans, including poachers.

My guide worried that such a place would not remain undiscovered for long. But he didn’t really fear poachers. He worried that discovery would bring a steady stream of biologists and conservation planners, intent on gathering data and undertaking expensive studies.

What could that data tell anyone, really? That there were a lot of jaguars in the area? Couldn’t that be figured out just by visiting, or by asking local people?

What would be gained by trapping, drugging and handling the jaguars, and then attaching collars to them?

It’s important to make conservation decisions based on science. However, gathering sufficient data shouldn’t delay conservation in areas obviously important to wildlife. Nor should science be used as an excuse to harass already imperiled wild animals unless absolutely necessary.

(Photo: Pantanal jaguar. Credit: Jennifer Miller.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I spend a lot of time in our national parks and I see far too many animals equipped with intrusive radio collars. It is overdone and the studies seem to be never ending.

  2. The Florida Panther collar program was discontinued earlier this year. With less than 100 animals left in a region with increasing development pressure this may be an occurrence when loss of a collar program is problematic. The species was showing signs of recovery thanks to conservation efforts, and collars showed that their range was increasing, which could have expanded their protection zone, but alas now we will not know how far they may roam or be protected.

  3. I see some benefits to (somewhat) obtrusive means of tracking particular species. It’s difficult to have a strong opinion on either side of this issue – perhaps a more discriminating use of these measures is in order. Radio collaring for scientific curiosity is not warranted. Doing the same to determine protection zones or critical habitat is certainly a different story.

  4. The biggest problem with radio collars and other tracking devices is that they do not magically appear on the studied animals. They are often put on the animals after exhausting helicopter chases and the use of dangerous immobilizing drugs.

  5. Definitely a different perspective on the issue of nature conservancy. I agree with this point. Sometimes conservationists can be a little too intrusive. It’s like an overbearing parent, their intentions are there, but are just a little misguided.

  6. I agree somewhat, I think over examination of wildlife could lead to animals becoming to comfortable with humans in the wild which could lead to poachers gaining an advantage. But one thing to think about is that these researchers are creating awareness, and awareness brings about funding, and funding leads to wildlife sanctuaries. Awareness is our greatest ally to save any kind of wildlife populace. Wildlife Media, a conservation organization that has combined video media and conservation in an effort to bring greater awareness about wildlife and wild places they are trying to protect. They are currently working on a movie called BEARTREK which takes you around the world to learn about the most endangered species of bears in the world. This is the proper avenue for awareness, highlight specific animals and the researchers working to understand them. Check out and the BEARTREK trailer! I can’t wait for this movie to come out, hopefully we can help save the few species left.

Add a Comment