In the Sandveld
April 15, 2016
Excitement all the way
April 19, 2016

Collar me crazy

Perceptions about collaring and tagging animals

The kings are apparently vanishing. The queens are supposedly departing. It seems the royalties are forever leaving, and it is causing chaos on earth.

Danene van der Westhuizen

T his chaos is the result of perceptions – the unique result of silence in a person’s mind when he sees or experiences something. It is the consciousness, awareness and understanding of something that generates a standpoint in our minds. Everyone looks at the same thing, everyone thinks something different. Give an egg to a Bushman and he will suck it empty and create adornments. Give it to a Frenchman and he will fry it in butter. An American will bake it in lard. Perceptions are formed through two elements. The first element is experience. Life’s significant experiences are filled with emotions and thoughts that play a big role in how our perceptions are formed.

A wounded animal. A free roaming lion. A caged lion. Enjoying a sundowner on top of a mountain. Shooting your first animal. Visiting a slaughtering house. The birth of a giraffe. An elephant crossing a river. Petting a tame cheetah. Watching vultures feed.

But this forms only half of the equation. The second element in the union of perceptions is information or the lack thereof. We are told that collaring is good, or we are told that it is bad. We are informed how to look at scientists, elephant, hunters, and predators. Animal behaviour is shown as gentle, kind, and funny through children’s films. Biased news informs the public of brutal killings of wild animals. Social media rings in our ears with exploitable information. As soon as an animal is collared, it is labelled, and therefore seemingly owned by society. In some cases the public is encouraged to “adopt” an animal by making a yearly donation to it after which they will receive a thank you note signed with a paw-print. Some websites actually allow the world to view the movement of collared animals. Often uproar is raised against a hunted collared animal. Why? Because it was owned, kept and preserved as in a zoo? This animal is still part of nature, and belongs to no one but its Creator. Moreover, other interest groups are fellow participants in nature.

We live in the information age.  But unfortunately many credible and informative papers, articles and briefings on ecosystems, wildlife and hunting by experienced professionals  never reach the uninformed and, even worse, are regarded as untrustworthy.

And this is the point where we stand. Faulty perceptions, chaos on earth!

What are our expectations of the wild nature we hope to still find? Since the beginning of time people have gathered by campfires. Adults and children are fascinated by stories and facts about wild animals. We idealise wild Africa as we experience it through Animal Planet’s television camera, never collared, never manhandled, never darted. Just wild. In the mind’s eye, Africa remains untouched. We do a yearly Namibia tour with our children where they choose the region, and somehow they love going back to Kaokoland, for which I am grateful as it is also one of my favourite parts. But my biggest fear is spotting yet another collared animal. How do I explain this to them? That the elephant cow around the corner in the Hoarusib river was not our secret discovery. That it is just not free and wild anymore. That a human has handled it. Its dignity lost through my and my children’s eyes.

The picture of an untouched Africa is greatly diminished at the sight of a once untouchable leopard too tired to pick up its head with the weight of a collar on its mangy, chafed neck, defeated, the antenna swaying rhythmically in and out of its line of sight.

It is important to note that expectations for experiencing nature have changed remarkably through the years, guided by increasing scientific and ecological knowledge, Disney movies, and cultural understanding.

Through scientific studies with collars, monitoring of wild animals has provided conservation professionals with insights into how to protect and manage threatened populations. We have also learned a lot about the species as a whole. But have the wildlife television programmes ever shown the downside of these collars? The weight burden, rejection, fights, death and pain that the individuals of these species have to endure?
In fact, some ideologically orientated groups collar animals to undermine the sustainable use  principle. In October 2015 a German trophy hunter took one of the largest elephants recorded in nearly 30 years, and now a Zimbabwean conservation group wants to put him to shame, like the killer of Cecil the lion. Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force Chairman, Johnny Rodrigues, even went so far as stating bluntly; “He had a permit but he should have used his common sense to say, this is a majestic animal’, and to report it to the authorities or to conservation groups. We would have collared it,” said Rodrigues (The Guardian 2015).

Zoe Jewell from WildTrack ( believes that “too much emphasis is put on the use of collars for ‘conservation’ – many conservation groups put on collars without a second thought about how they will be removed if causing problems to the animal, or even how that funding could be better deployed for using more cost-effective techniques for conservation, ideally also engaging and benefitting local people. At best, collaring, used properly, can be a useful tool to investigate parameters (range, behaviour, some physiological measures) for a few animals.  At worst it is a serious distraction from anti-poaching and human-wildlife conflict remediation – both of which are better addressed by effective local ‘boots on the ground’ and strong conservation and community management infrastructure.”

Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai promote non-invasive techniques. They have developed a footprint identification technique (FIT) which is not only a step in the right direction, but an excellent example of using the traditional methods of the ancient art of tracking as a way into the future. Many other scientists worldwide are moving towards non-invasive techniques as a substitute for collaring. I have witnessed at first hand the outrage that some Namibian scientists show towards collaring, not only because they have seen its devastating effect on the individual, but also because the scientific results have become questionable due to the changes in the behaviour of the animals fitted with collars. Such results are misleading and dangerous because they create the illusion that something useful has been done, and they may be unreliable.

The information that we are fed through television does not include this negative picture. The everyday human being snacking on popcorn while watching wildlife programmes becomes distraught by the kings vanishing. But add the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a collared animal and the sometimes terrible lot the animals have to endure for the camera-team (or whoever) to be able to air the television programme will most probably change his perspective, and possibly cause even greater distress.

In Yellowstone Park in the United States, tourists of the first half of the twentieth century saw no harm in feeding snacks to bears “begging” by the roadside. But the cultural understanding that painted bears as charming bandits also created an unsustainable situation involving disruptive feeding patterns, numerous personal injuries to humans – resulting in control measures ending in death for many bears (Pritchard 1999).

Just recently, a woman was dragged from a car and killed in a lion park in South Africa while she was taking photos of the same lion less than one meter away from the car with her window open (Findlay 2015). Easy peasy, the way they do on television. Human intervention clearly plays a huge part in the behavioural changes that animals present.

In Zimbabwe, a lion wearing a satellite collar for research purposes killed a guide leading a walking tour through Hwange National Park. Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority didn’t specify which of the lions attacked him but noted that one member of the pride, named Nxaha, wore a tracking collar (Associated Press 2015).

Collared lions are observed to be particularly aggressive, as during the collaring process they are chased around by ground personnel or helicopter, helplessly aware of humans chasing them and therefore considerably traumatised before collaring. Add some slow, heartbreaking music to this scene, and you will have the next social media outbreak, for sure.

In Namibia in the 1990s all lions in Bushmanland were collared and hot-branded for research. All died afterwards from various causes resulting from this. One lion had to be removed after mauling an American hunting client and was shot. A whole lion population collapsed.

GPS collars are notoriously unreliable and are very costly; they are very heavy and have short battery lives. Because of this, regular darting is necessary to replace the collars. The consequences are devastating. Some animals have to face a life without ever losing the burden of a collar. It has been proven that it is almost impossible to re-catch a jackal fitted with a collar, which leaves him attached to it forever; as an animal gains condition or grows, the collar can tighten and strangle it.

” In a study on the effects of collar weight on zebra, unexpected results showed that a significant effect on the zebra’s natural behaviour occurred. A weight difference of a mere few hundred grams has had a significant influence on the movement of zebras. “


With collaring, wild dogs possibly lose their hierarchy. This must be one of the most stressful experiences an animal can face: rejection from its pack. Fighting for the position he always had, and then lost within a matter of moments, without even the faintest idea why.

With collaring, wild dogs possibly lose their hierarchy. This must be one of the most stressful experiences an animal can face: rejection from its pack. Fighting for the position he always had, and then lost within a matter of moments, without even the faintest idea why.

Research by Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai (2000) from WildTrack showed that regular immobilisation to replace collars (usually failed collars because the technology is still generally unreliable) caused the female black rhino inter-calving interval to drop from one calf every three years to one calf every ten years.

They suspect this was due to a combination of the potent drugs used and the fact that the chase (particularly in the dry season – the only time it’s practical to do it) is very stressful for the animal. From the veterinary perspective, no vet in his/her right mind would attempt to immobilise a pregnant mare in this manner, the results are therefore probably not unexpected. Of course, such a drop in fertility is a disaster for an endangered species.

They also found that some collars, applied in the dry season, were becoming too tight on the rhino in the wet season (because they’d gained so much neck girth/condition) and had caused serious neck wounds (Alibhai et al. 2001). Again, cue the music…

In a study on the effects of collar weight on zebra, unexpected results showed that a significant effect on the zebra’s natural behaviour occurred. A weight difference of a mere few hundred grams has had a significant influence on the movement of zebras (Brooks et al. 2008).

The only advantage an individual animal might gain from being collared is where it would serve as protecting its neck against fights and snares. Again, nature has not taken its own course, and a predator might sleep hungry that night.

Humanity needs to decide what its perspective is on wild nature. Does it include collared animals? Are we not losing the essence of nature as we dream of it? The discovery and rediscovery of what we track down walking in the veld, observing animals in their natural state without any human intervention, the surprise behaviour we witness that cannot be found in any guide-book, perhaps only in the mind-boggling narrative of a San tracker.

Yes, we need science to help us understand the species, but what about the mystery of the animal? Does that not also make up part of what we are seeking in nature? This is what draws us to sit around the fire, fascinated by animals – the making of Africa in all its glory. The constant alertness in the veld and vigilant seeking of Africa’s enigma.

GPS collars are notoriously unreliable and are very costly; they are very heavy and have short battery lives. Because of this, regular darting is necessary to replace the collars. Photo ©Auas Oanob Leopard Project

But will it be the same, knowing that the jackal howling far away is fitted with a collar, wondering whether the vulture feeding on a cheetah kill is free of any obstructions, and hoping that the lion that I have stalked and tracked for ten days will not reek of the stink of man?

This, of course, is where the question will be asked whether collaring, even if it has its negative effects, is still not better than killing? What hunting brings to the environmental equation is a sense of realism all too frequently lacking in what might be called popular environmentalism – that tendency to want to preserve nature “unaffected by man”. Hunters, after all, know about blood, about the tissue-thin boundary between life and death; that life and death feed off one another in nature. Ultimately, what we learn from hunting is the lesson not simply of our own mortality but, more importantly, of our participation in the life/death/life cycle of the natural world. Mary Zeiss Stange maybe answers the question best: “Yes! To live the hunting life fully, conscientiously, ethically, and unapologetically. To teach by lived example, with humility and without regret, that all life feeds on death, including – eventually – our own” Minding
Nature 2014).

Here is the bottom line: bad experience and substandard information result in faulty perceptions, which lead to misdirection and disconnection. On the other hand, better experiences and better information result in proper perceptions.  These in turn lead to direction and connection, a vital tool for the survival of Africa as we know it… to what we truly want it to be.

Don’t be afraid to re-experience things that matter. Seek out new information from reliable sources. And fight for the nature you want to believe in.

Lastly, this chaos on Earth is not only aggravated by perception, but also by two other factors: evil and stupidity. Evil does not deserve a story from my pen. For that, there is greedy consumers and newspapers. For stupidity, there is social media.

Let the kings be…


  • Alibhai, S.K. Jewell, Z.C. and Towindo, S.S. 2000. Effects of immobilization on fertility in female black rhino (Diceros bicornis). Journal of Zoology (Impact Factor: 1.88). 02/2001; 253(3):333 – 345.
  • Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. 2001. Field Studies: Animal immobilization. Oryx 35 (4): 284-288.
  • Associated Press. 2015. Zimbabwe tour guide dies protecting tourist from lion. The National World. 26 August.
  • Brooks, Bonyongo,  and Harris, S. 2008. Effects of Global Positioning System collar weight on zebra behavior and location error. Journal of Wildlife Management 72(2):527-534.
  • Findlay, S. 2015. US woman dragged from car and killed by lion in South African park. The Telegraph. 1 June.
  • Pritchard, J.A. 1999. Preserving Yellowstone’s natural conditions. Science and the Perception of Nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Stange, M.Z. 2014. Hunting/Human/Nature. Minding Nature: September 2014, Volume 7, Number 3
  • Walket. P. 2015. German elephant hunter will be named and shamed, vows Zimbabwe taskforce. The Guardian. 16 October.
This article was first published in the HUNTiNAMIBIA 2016 English edition.