Tracking Wildlife Safely: The Power of GPS and VHF Collars

Estimated read time 11 min read

In the realm of conservation, especially in a biodiverse hotspot like South Africa, monitoring endangered and priority species is of utmost significance. Kevin Emslie’s insightful blog detailed the five pivotal reasons for this surveillance. Expanding on that knowledge, let’s delve into the indispensable tools that make such monitoring possible: tracking collars.

What are Radio Collars?

When diving into the vast realm of wildlife research, a question that frequently arises is: What are Radio Collars? These are not merely mundane devices but critical tools in the hands of wildlife researchers and conservationists. Radio collars, often referred to as tracking collars, are specially designed devices that are typically fastened around an animal’s neck or body. Think of them as sophisticated “bracelets” with a very specific purpose.

Once they’re securely on an animal, these collars become invaluable assets. They emit signals—sort of like a mobile phone trying to catch a network. But instead of facilitating a conversation between two people, these signals provide data that paints a picture of an animal’s life. They allow researchers to track the exact whereabouts of the creature, understanding its movement patterns, territories, and sometimes even its behavioral nuances.

Types of Radio Collars

  • VHF (Very High Frequency) Collars: These were the pioneers in wildlife tracking, originating in the 1960s. They emit radio signals that researchers can detect using a receiver and antenna. Manual tracking is required, making it labor-intensive;
  • GPS Collars: Modern technology meets wildlife research. These collars function similarly to the GPS in our smartphones, communicating with satellites to provide precise locations. They offer frequent data updates and reduce manual tracking efforts.
AttributesVHF CollarsGPS/GSM CollarsGPS Satellite Collars
Method of Locating the CollarManual tracking of radio signals; location recorded on a handheld GPS. Requires more fieldwork time.Collar transmits GPS data via GSM or can be remotely accessed with a UHF device. Viewable on Google Earth.Collar automatically sends location data via email. Can be viewed on Google Earth. Minimizes fieldwork time.
Data AcquiredVisual data on home range, habitat use, behavior, population demographics, and diet.Captures animal’s location to determine home range and habitat. No behavior data unless paired with VHF.Captures animal’s location, ideal for remote areas. Doesn’t record behavioral data.
Mortality SensorRadio pulse frequency increases if animal remains stationary for over 4 hours.Only records position; behavior and mortality can be determined if paired with VHF.Just records position; lacks behavioral data insights.
Lifetime of Batteries3 years2 years2 years
Age of TechnologyOver 20 yearsOver 10 years2 years
Approximate Cost (in ZAR)500010,000 – 35,00045,000

What Do Radio Collars Do?

  • Data Collection: Radio collars allow for a deeper understanding of animals in their natural habitat. They provide data on migration patterns, territorial habits, feeding areas, and mating practices;
  • Conservation Efforts: With the information from these collars, strategies can be developed to protect endangered species, counteract human-wildlife conflicts, and create wildlife corridors;
  • Research: Collars have facilitated numerous studies, like understanding causes of death, habitat preferences, or effects of human encroachment;
  • Anti-Poaching: Some advanced collars come with anti-poaching features, sending alerts if an animal’s heart rate drops suddenly or if it hasn’t moved for a prolonged period.

The Significance of Tracking Collars in Monitoring Wild Animals

The wildlife radio collar is an innovation that has significantly transformed the way researchers understand and interact with animals in their natural habitats. By leveraging the power of radio tracking collars, scientists have been provided a window into the daily lives of various species, helping unravel mysteries that were once thought to be impenetrable.

One of the prevailing techniques to observe and study wild creatures is the deployment of tracking collars. This wildlife radio collar technology furnishes scientists and conservationists with foundational insights, ranging from territories and movement patterns to behavioral tendencies and dietary habits.

At the heart of this method lies radio tracking, wherein a creature is adorned with a specifically designed collar that emits radio frequencies. The meticulous planning that goes into the construction and design of these collars ensures that they seamlessly blend into the animal’s routine without causing disruptions. Moreover, the efficiency of these radio tracking collars is paramount, optimizing the chances of picking up the signals they emit.

Accommodating various needs, these collars offer a range of belts and battery capacities. While designing, one core principle remains — the weight of the collar should be proportionate to the animal. For instance, when thinking about the wild dog, a collar’s weight should ideally not exceed 450 grams.

Equipping the collar with state-of-the-art sensors offers a deeper dive into understanding the nuances of the wild. From detecting slight movements and temperature shifts to discerning the life state of the creature, these collars are revolutionizing the data collection process. One of their standout features is the adaptability of the pulse rates based on the animal’s behavior, providing researchers with cues about the animal’s current state, whether it be active or resting.

Now, let’s delve deeper into the diverse array of tracking collars available:

VHF Tracking Collars

  • Functionality: VHF, or “very high frequency” collars, often referred to as pulse collars, come equipped with transmitters that emit periodic radio signals. These signals enable researchers to physically pinpoint and observe the animal’s location. This is achieved by tuning into the emitted signal with a specialized receiver and a directional antenna;
  • Benefits: VHF tracking collars are celebrated for their simplicity, reliability, versatility, and cost-effectiveness, making them a valuable asset in wildlife monitoring. Suitable for an array of animals, the battery life of these collars is impressive, often stretching up to three years. For situations where the external antenna might be at risk – like potential chewing by the animal – collars with internal antennas are available as an alternative;
  • Estimated Cost: Around $350, inclusive of shipping;
  • Application in Wildlife: These collars are typically positioned around the necks of wild predators such as wild dogs, cheetahs, and lions. Additionally, they’re attached to the ankles of black and white rhinos.

For the black and white rhino species, an alternative VHF tracking method exists where a transmitter is carefully drilled and placed inside the horn. However, due to the transmitter’s compact size, its operational duration is somewhat limited, lasting between 18 months and 2 years.

Anti-Snare VHF Collars

  • Functionality: While operating similarly to the standard VHF collar, the anti-snare VHF collar features an additional studded metal plate. This plate’s purpose is to ensure that any snares potentially targeting the animal would more likely get entangled around the collar instead of the animal’s neck, thus preventing lethal strangulation;
  • Benefits: Based on our comprehensive monitoring using these anti-snare collars, not only do they help in data collection, but they have also proven instrumental in preserving wildlife. The collar’s studded design catches the snare, negating its tightening grip around the animal’s neck. This offers a valuable window of time for monitors to locate the ensnared animal and summon a veterinarian to safely remove the trap, ensuring the animal’s survival;
  • Estimated Cost: Approximately $650;
  • Application in Wildlife: These specialized collars are typically used for animals dwelling in areas with a high prevalence of snaring.

GPS Tracking Collars

  • Functionality: These collars harness the power of the Global Positioning System to remotely determine and log the precise location of the animal wearing it. Depending on the settings, the collar records location data at specific intervals. While earlier versions required manual data retrieval from the collar, modern GPS collars facilitate remote data downloading. Some models utilize GSM cell phone signals for this purpose (GPS/GSM collars), while others store the data to be remotely accessed using a handheld UHF device (store-on-board GPS collars). Then there are SAT/GPS collars that employ global satellites to relay position and other vital data directly to a user’s computing system;
  • Advantages: GPS collars’ standout feature over VHF variants is their capability to amass data remotely, regardless of the time of day. Most of these collars also integrate VHF functionalities, meaning animals can be tracked in a traditional manner if needed. This dual functionality provides a broader platform for observational studies;
  • Drawbacks: A primary concern with GPS collars is their heightened power demands compared to their VHF counterparts, resulting in increased collar weight. This necessitates the use of smaller batteries, which often equates to diminished battery longevity. This limitation is particularly pronounced for smaller species, with some collars lasting under a year. GPS/GSM variants can be constrained by the reach of mobile phone signals, rendering them ineffective or suboptimal in certain regions. Another downside is the considerable cost associated with these advanced tracking devices;
  • Estimated Cost: Ranging between R15,000 and R50,000;
  • Application in Wildlife: These advanced tracking devices are typically strapped around the necks of species like wild dogs and cheetahs. For birds such as vultures, a harness or “backpack” style attachment is preferred. GPS collars have also proven effective when attached to the ankles of both black and white rhinos.

The Wild Dog Collar

  • Functionality of the Wild Dog Collar: The wild dog collar is custom-designed for the African wild dog, keeping in mind its specific anatomy and lifestyle. Fitted with advanced tracking technologies, it uses both GPS and VHF signals to record the dog’s position and movement. To enhance the collar’s utility, it is also embedded with various sensors that gather additional data points like the surrounding temperature, the dog’s activity levels, and periods when the animal is resting;
  • Advantages of the Wild Dog Collar: The primary advantage of using the wild dog collar lies in its ability to offer precise location tracking. This not only aids in studying the dog’s territories and interactions with other packs but also helps in monitoring their health and well-being. The real-time data provided by these collars enable researchers to respond promptly to any threats or emergencies, thus directly contributing to the conservation efforts. Additionally, with the insights into their daily behavior, scientists can further delve into their social structures, hunting patterns, and breeding habits;
  • Application in Wildlife: In the realm of wildlife conservation, the wild dog collar plays a crucial role in preserving the African wild dog population. Given their endangered status, every piece of information is vital. With the data retrieved from these collars, conservationists can make informed decisions, be it in anti-poaching efforts, habitat preservation, or medical interventions. It offers a non-invasive method to study these elusive animals in their natural environment, further bridging the gap between man and wild.

Challenges and Controversies

Radio collars have played a pivotal role in enhancing our comprehension of wildlife, aiding in conservation and research endeavors. However, their use has sparked several debates and concerns within the scientific and animal welfare communities.

  • Animal Distress: There’s evidence to suggest that some animals might find the presence of a collar distressing. This could lead to changes in behavior, eating habits, or even interaction with other animals;
  • Visibility to Predators: Bright or bulky collars can potentially make animals more noticeable to their natural predators, putting them at increased risk. Even if the collar is camouflaged or of a neutral tone, the added weight or bulk could impede an animal’s ability to escape threats;
  • Capture and Handling Stress: The process of fitting a collar often necessitates the capture of the animal. This can be traumatic, causing stress, potential injury, or in rare cases, death;
  • Malfunctions and Inaccuracies: Like any technological device, radio collars can malfunction. They might provide inaccurate data, fail to transmit, or even cause injuries if they become too tight or get entangled;
  • Interference with Natural Behavior: There are concerns that the presence of a collar, especially if it’s a bit heavy or cumbersome, might interfere with specific natural behaviors like hunting, climbing, or even nurturing young ones;
  • Environmental Concerns: Collars that fall off and aren’t retrieved can add to environmental waste. Furthermore, the process of tracking animals, often involving vehicles or aircraft, can lead to additional environmental footprints.


Radio collars provide a window into the world of animals that would otherwise remain closed. They bridge the gap between technology and nature, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for the wild beings with whom we share our planet. As technology continues to advance, so will our insights into the intricate dance of life that plays out in our world’s wilderness areas.

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