Radio-collaring – do the ends really justify the means?

I haven’t been a fan of radio-collaring for nearly 20 years my views having been reinforced by the sight of lemurs with radio collars and ridiculous name tags in Madagascar, and TV programmes ruined by Snow Leopards and Pumas wearing conspicuous collars.

However my dislike of it has reached new lows after a recent experience with researchers.  Visiting a well-established primate research project we were disappointed to find that they planned to catch the animals while we were there as they were ‘roosting in an accessible tree’. This was bad enough but what made it worse was that having failed to catch the animals by reaching down into the holes in which they were sleeping, the researcher’s assistants proceeded to use a machete/axe to hack holes in the tree trunk so that the animals could be grabbed at the bottom of the roosting hole. They were then pulled out of the hole screaming and continued to scream throughout the processing. They were clearly stressed out throughout the whole process.

In my opinion although limited radio-collaring, conducted properly, has its place, particularly in the case of widely-ranging species, it is frequently overused and abused and has become what I would term ‘lazy science’. Far too much radio-collaring is going on in the name of science when it is actually little more than justification for a research grant for a PHd or likewise. In addition some of these projects run for far too long and add no additional information after the first few years. I have a similar frustration with the excessive colour-ringing and wing-tagging of birds.

The interest of the animal must surely come first and I do not believe for a moment that the stress caused to the animals can be justified on the grounds of the so-called ‘greater good of the species’.


  • Arne Secelle

    Dear Mr. Webb,
    I am glad that someone share my dislike for collaring wild animals and dares to speak out about this.
    You mention that the views of animals with collars are ruining your trips or ruining animal documentaries and that animals are stressed during the process of the collaring. I agree with you that collared wild animals take away from the experience. But as a veterinarian, my objections are more in view of the animal wellfare. First , these animals have to be caught and imobilised and are therefore often darted, with all the risks that come with anaesthesia of wild animals. I even have seen a case were they have used a snare to capture a snow leopard in order to collar the animal: if you think how easy things can go wrong with this kind of capturing, it is mindblowing how much risk these so called scientists are willing to take with the health of these animals. And all to gather information that is selden shared and that is, in my opinion, more often than not, stating the obvious . Very often the collaring is used just to be able to track the animals easily. A problem that is never addressed is how these collared animals are coping with these collars. They are mostly made of a very thick and hard kind of leather and are put around the neck very thight so that the animals can’t take them of. In my practice , each year I am presented with cases of pets that have enormous raches underneath their collars after they have been swimming or after the haven been in the rain. Thes raches require aggressive treatment and could be life threatening if left untreated.It is my strong believe that many collared wild animals develop the same problems. But they don’t get treatment for it at all. I wonder how many animals succumb because of their collars. Be it because of the way they are caught to put the collars on, be it because of health problems caused by the collars or be it because the animals ar inconvenienced by the collar during their normal activities. In my opinion the risks outway every benefit by far and especially with endagered animals, collaring should be banned or restricted much ore than it is today.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    An international radiocollaring program in Ussuriland once caused mass mortality in tigers – a story not well known outside Russia. I can look up the details if you are interested.

  • Miles Foster

    Thank you for the thread, Richard. I think there is no doubt that radio tracking has provided information that is invaluable in helping to conserve a wide range of species. But I agree that it is probably over-used. A few years ago my wife and I were visiting an area where a radio collar programme was being undertaken by a well respected organisation although it was alleged that it had not consulted any of the interested parties such as local wild life lodges. We were shown a digital map showing the movements of some of the collared animals, which was interesting and indicated that they were probably more social than generally believed. But the guides, who knew the individuals by sight and say them regularly, said they knew that information already but no one had asked them. So it seems that sometimes good, old-fashioned observation may be all that’s needed – without all the attendant risks of radio collaring.


    Thanks for the comments to date and Arne, I agree that many people are too afraid to speak their mind, particularly when their views may be unpopular.

    Further to the deaths of tigers referred to by Vladimir, I’m told by reliable sources in Chile that two out of five Pumas radio-collared in Torres del Paine died within 15 months of being captured for apparently no obvious reasons after a new radio-collaring project was established. What makes it worse is that this is almost certainly the best studied population of Pumas in the world having been studied and filmed over several decades, so why a US university deemed it necessary to radio-collar five Pumas is beyond me. I had the misfortune to find one of the collared females on my last visit, and it gave me no pleasure at all as the collar looked hideous.

  • Miles Foster

    Yes, I quite agree, Richard; collaring a population that is already well studied and frequently observed, as with those pumas, is hard to justify. Tracking bird or whale migrations to identify and protect the areas they visit is another matter, of course. But it does seem the practice is all too often in the pursuit of spurious academic interests.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    In the case of the tigers, deaths were apparently caused by foot snares used for catching them rather than by radiocollars themselves. Here’s a paper (I helped translate into English but didn’t have anything to do with the content):

  • michael gordon

    There are some horror stories coming from sabah. a famous research centre stopped trying to collar male proboscis monkeys because they were breaking thier spines whem they fell out the trees and had to be put down.

    Collaring tarsiers with low survival rates.

    There is someone in sabah now armed with an anti drone net firing bazooka, his aim is to shoot hornbills out the sky to collar them.

    A lot of this is jist to get published as the FIRST to collar **** whatever species.

    While there is rampant poaching i think funds would be better spent on conservation as opposed to science just for the sake of it

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