New insights: the Gobi Desert through the eyes of a khulan

Khulans on the hill, Foto © P. Kaczensky

Khulans on the hill, Foto © P. Kaczensky  1

For the effective conservation of endangered species, it is important to know as much as possible about their habitat requirements and life history. An international research team led by Vetmeduni Vienna therefore equipped an Asiatic wild ass – a so-called khulan – in the Gobi desert with a new kind of satellite collar which included a camera. The recently published results of the research project are promising: in addition to a significant gain in knowledge for science and wildlife conservation, the additional information gained from the images also offers the general public exciting new insights into the way of life of a far ranging species in a very remote and challenging environment.

The Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia is one of the largest remaining natural drylands and home to a unique assemblage of migratory wild ungulates. This integrity of this ecosystem is at risk if increasing human activities are not carefully planned and regulated. Among the species at risk is the the largest remaining population of the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus; locally called “khulan”), which is assessed as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Important new insights through innovative camera technology

Individual khulan roam over areas of thousands of square kilometres. The scale of their movements is among the largest described for terrestrial mammals, making them especially difficult to study. A team of researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National University of Mongolia and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, therefore deployed a satellite collar with an integrated camera to gain new insights into habitat use, life history and potential threats khulan face in the Gobi. The deployment of this innovative camera technology on an adult khulan mare resulted in several thousand images over a one-year-period.

“The images provided us with important new insights into life history events of this mare and other khulan. The images allowed us to document khulan behaviour near human infrastructure, where and when the animals gathered in larger groups, and the frequency of encounters with semi-nomadic herders and their livestock,” says lead author Petra Kaczensky from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. The image material also allowed an estimate of the availability of water at different times and at different places. “The success of our pilot project shows the added value of deploying camera collars on animals in remote, highly variable ecosystems for research and conservation purposes,” adds Sanchir Khaliun from the National University of Mongolia.

Added value of camera collars

Although GPS satellite telemetry already makes it possible to track animals in near-real time such remotely collected data also harbours the risk of missing important abiotic or biotic environmental variables or life history events. This is of particular importance for animals with large-scale nomadic movements, as is the case with khulan.The migratory behaviour of khulan puts them especially at risk from the influence of human activities, in particular concerning the need for regular access to water and pasture lands. “The new camera technology has allowed us to gain information about important life history events, e.g. when and where the collared khulan’s foal was born. And the images allow us to draw conclusions about behaviour,, for example, that khulan seem to avoid people and their livestock. The images also make it possible to better determine the impact of local weather conditions on water availability and, consequently, on nomadic movements than had previously been the case,” says Chris Walzer from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Huge media potential

According to the study’s authors, images from camera collars also have an enormous PR potential, as documented by an increasing number of images used in popular science articles, books or documentaries. These images and videos provide insight into the secret lives of animals and are guaranteed to attract public attention. “The newly developed camera collar is therefore an important tool to communicate new research findings to the public, develop attractive educational material and raise awareness for conservation issues,” says Petra Kaczensky. The authors of the study have therefore used a small subset of the images from the camera collar to supplement this publication with a popular version in a StoryMap format 2.

To the english press release, the scientific article and the press photo 3

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