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How Caribou Baby Monitors Could Save a Dying Species

Scientists hope camera collars with GPS will unravel a deadly mystery

smithsonian.com

It’s a troubling mystery: In the icy northern limits of Quebec, hundreds of thousands of caribou are dying, and scientists can’t figure out why. By the latest estimate, only 199,000 of them still remain in Nunavik—down from 430,000 in 2011—and it’s not clear what is driving the die-off. Now, reports Motherboard’s Sarah Emerson, a group of scientists has come up with a creative way to perhaps solve the mystery: put collars with GPS and cameras on pregnant caribou.

Think of the collars as remote baby monitors for caribou calves. The caribou cams were fitted on sedated, pregnant caribou mamas and used to spy on baby caribou. They take short videos every 20 minutes, tracking the babies' interactions, movements and environment.

Researchers tell Nunatsiaq Online's Lisa Gregoire that they affixed the collars on 14 pregnant females, 13 of whom had calves. At the end of their monitoring period, eight of the young were still spotted on camera, suggesting that 62 percent had survived. The 92-day-long experiment was so successful that a second pilot project is now in progress.

In order to save Canada’s caribou, scientists must first identify what’s going on with the animals. Since last year, Canada’s barren ground caribou have been classified as “threatened” because of their dwindling numbers. As Radio Canada International’s Marc Montgomery reports, only half the overall population and a tiny percentage of some herds still remain. Experts think that everything from human development to climate change is to blame.

Hunters, too, threaten caribou in Canada. Though Quebec’s government has agreed to pause sport hunting for the creatures during the 2018-2019 season, it’s currently allowed. The move will likely be unpopular with those who still remember the industry’s decline after a paused hunt in 2011, but for many the measures are being characterized as too little, too late. CBC News reports that a group of First Nations people and Inuit are working to ban sport hunting of caribou altogether. But some Nunavik Inuit people still hunt caribou for food, writes Gregoire—and biologists tell her that it’s hard to track their numbers due to subsistence hunters' refusal to provide data.

As of yet, it’s unclear how much the cameras will help declining caribou populations. But the more information the better, and there’s a bonus: The baby caribou caught on camera are really, really cute. Collar programs will continue through at least 2020, reports Emerson—long enough to catch even more priceless footage of a threatened species.

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