1 Tahrcountry Musings: Tracking Animals-Combining Indigenous Skills and Modern DNA Analysis

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tracking Animals-Combining Indigenous Skills and Modern DNA Analysis

Inuits of Canada have the uncanny ability to identify a Polar Bear's sex, age and size from its foot prints in the snow. Hunters have been utilizing these skills for a long time. Now scientists are utilizing the skills along with modern technology to survey Polar Bears that are becoming scarce.

Polar bears across the Arctic are imperiled due to overharvesting and climate change. Reproductive and survival rates have declined due to changes in the sea ice. There are currently 19 populations of polar bears in the Arctic, in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway and Greenland. Thirteen of these populations live wholly or partially in Canada.

The new project is headed by Biologists Peter V.C. de Groot and Peter Boag. In the new method a number of "hair traps," (fenced enclosures baited with meat) will be set up about 15 kilometers apart across a 600 kilometer stretch of wilderness. Bits of hair left behind by the bears as they attempt to grab the meat are sent to Dr. Boag's lab, where the number and sex of the animals are determined using DNA markers. As adjunct to the experiment samples of bear feces are collected and genetically screened at the Laboratory of Wildlife Diseases at the San Diego Zoo for the presence of pathogens that may infect polar bears. Analysis of Polar bear footprints is part of Dr. de Groot's tracking method where Inuits’ skills come in handy. The new method is cheaper and much easier than the current tracking practice, in which the bears are spotted from helicopters, tranquilized and marked.

The efforts of Canadian scientists are laudable. The skills of indigenous communities are utilized in the research and management of wildlife. The communities stand to benefit economically also. It is worthy of emulation by other nations.

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