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New Technology Joins Battle to Save Old Species

October 18, 1987|GAYLE YOUNG | United Press International

NEW YORK — The rare snout-nosed, delicately hooved okapis of Zaire are caught today as they have been for centuries--lured into palm-covered pits dug into the forest floor.

It is the only safe way to capture them. And it is only after they are captured that they can be fitted with high-technology radiotelemetry collars, which send signals across miles of tangled jungle to recorders that monitor the animals on the run and at rest, as they give birth and when they die.

The Okapi Project, run by anthropologists Terese Hart and John Hart in Zaire, represents everything old and new about the emerging discipline of conservation biology.

Old-fashioned techniques in bird- and animal-watching have been combined with the latest in computers, biology, genetics and technology.

"There was a period when conservation was equated with home economics by the scientific and academic communities," said Michael Soule, a biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who started the first peer-reviewed scientific journal for conservationists two years ago.

"Their isolation tended to prevent the diffusion of new information from other sciences," he said. "That's changing now. There are many advances in many fields that are applicable to conservation biology.

"It is becoming much more exact, much more accurate."

Conservationists said it is increasingly important to turn their field--long noted for its eccentric individualists and characterized by quaint techniques--into a recognized science.

"The process of death and decline is accelerating," Soule said. "When we go to governments, hats in hand, saying, 'We need to put aside land for this animal,' we have to know exactly how much land and why."

George Schaller, director of Wildlife Conservation International, the conservation program of the New York Zoological Society, agrees.

"The research is needed as the first step to implementing conservation programs," said Schaller, who helped establish a program to save the rare giant pandas of China.

"It's really a new field," he said. "The change has been going on for years, but it's crystallizing."

A brief survey of conservationists uncovered a number of projects designed to save animals by using recently discovered scientific and technological advances.

Scientists are examining the DNA of rhinos and gazelles to determine their long-term genetic--and therefore evolutionary--viability.

A massive project in the rain forests of Brazil is using computers to pinpoint changes in a complex ecosystem that may go unnoticed by the naked eye of conservationists, no matter how keen.

Sophisticated radiotelemetry collars are allowing scientists to determine how far animals like the giant pandas roam, a crucial piece of knowledge needed to set up reserves.

The collars are also being used to determine mating patterns, feeding habits and life cycles of a number of animals.

Plants eaten by the giant macaws of Peru and okapis in Zaire have been chemically analyzed to determine their nutritional value.

"Until a few years ago we couldn't do things like this because we were less scientifically oriented," said Rob Bierregaard, senior scientist on the World Wildlife Fund's forest ecosystems project in Brazil.

For the last eight years, Bierregaard and his colleagues have been collecting reams of information about Brazilian birds, animals, plants and insects and feeding it into an IBM computer.

Their goal is to determine how deforestation affects the patches of tropical rain forest left by developers.

"The problem with the tropics is that it is so complex, it has so many variations, the patterns are beyond the vision of mortal humans," Bierregaard said in a recent interview.

"A computer can sort through all the background noise and see subtle changes."

Bierregaard, an ornithologist, wrote a number of the computer programs used in the project himself. But an increasing number of programs designed specifically for conservation biologists are available on the market.

"You can buy programs on the home range of animals and on bird capture records," he said.

Another ornithologist, Charles Munn, dedicated to saving the massive brightly feathered macaws of Peru, talks computers, powerful binoculars and slingshots.

He devised the slingshots, used to project climbing equipment into 150-foot-tall trees, from equipment used in his undergraduate days at Princeton University.

"They would put a loop of surgical tubing across the window frame, put a funnel in the middle and a water balloon in that, then let loose on anyone unfortunate enough to be in the quad," he said of his classmates.

"When I had to figure out how to get lines in trees, it sort of came back to me," he said in a telephone interview from his Philadelphia home.

"A lot of this work is sort of old-fashioned ingenuity, mother-of-invention stuff," he said. "But the technological advances have been a tremendous help."

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