Figure 1: Searching for tiger signs in Malaysia
As my first season of long, sweaty fieldwork fast-approaches, I am now planning my field surveys. Given the top secret life which these cats lead, I need to use novel methods to help me find the all-important sign of their whereabouts: poo (otherwise known as scat). Animal scat provides an excellent source of information on a population, species and even individual, including diet, sex, patterns of movement, and genetic identity. Yet for elusive cats whose populations have reached extremely low numbers, finding enough poop for a robust study is a needle in a haystack scenario. I need help, and perhaps surprisingly, this involves dogs.
A scat dog (generally known as a wildlife detection dog) as seen in this example by National Geographic, is a relatively recent field survey technique, and a popular emerging method in conservation science. Just like we train sniffer dogs to detect drugs and other contraband for police and customs, we are now also able to train them to find the scat of a target species, discriminate between very similar species, and even individuals of interest. The method has already been used successfully in several big cat studies. For one jaguar study in Belize, dogs located over 1,600 scats over a 16-month period across five separate sites. In Cambodia, dogs successfully found both fresh and old leopard scat, with some samples detectable even when buried under two inches of mud from the previous rainy season. Even in extreme heat in Africa, dogs were able to cover over 20km in one day, successfully detecting over 1,000 scats over a three-month period from lion, cheetah and leopard.
Figure 2: Professional big cat sniffer dog Bruiser. ©Steve Winter / National Geographic.
This method has certainly been proven to work well in a range of difficult environments, but this is not without extensive training both before and during surveys. Foremost, in order to ensure a dog is on the right track, they must first be the right dog. That is, one who never tires of the game of ‘find and reward’. Whilst any individual could potentially do this, a dog should be selected carefully, ensuring it doesn’t get bored or distracted, or display nervous behaviours. It’s also important to consider the appropriate breed for the working conditions; breeds such as Spaniels are excellent scat detectives, working in short, sharp intense bursts, whereas Labradors may be better suited to humid environments, working at a slower pace and therefore tiring less quickly. Once the right individual has been identified for the job, several months training with the target scent must precede any survey, with ‘refresher training’ both during and in between.
Figure 3: Expert bat and great crested newt sniffer dog Rocky. ©Conservation Dogs.
There are also challenges facing what is now a popular industry in ecology and wildlife conservation. Last year, I attended an international workshop on wildlife detection dogs, held at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. In attendance were a number of impressive Ecologists and Conservationists who had been using, or planned to use scat dogs, as part of their research. As everyone shared their own unique experiences (dogs were being used to not only find poop but also invasive beetles in trees), conversation turned to discussing the current lack of regulation in this fast-growing business. In other similar scenarios such as police and customs dogs in the UK, animal welfare regulations and minimum standards of care are in place through national legislation, but for wildlife detection dogs, there is currently no such international process to ensure a minimum standard of training and welfare. As with any potential contractor, it is vitally important to do your homework and assess their reputation, previous experience and suitability for your project. Finally, you are left with two options: find and train your own dog (a difficult decision when one is when undertaking a PhD, and even more so if one is more of a cat person and inexperienced with dogs), or pay a costly sum running in to thousands of pounds for a company to do the job.
As I mull over these options and beetle away on grant bids, plans and potential poo trails, I am excited at the prospect of trialling this method, which has not yet been applied in Peninsular Malaysia. As we look to the future as a conservation collective, and how we can better understand critically endangered species, it seems odd that the one being who knows cats better than us is a dog. But the method is simple: find the poop and you might just get your answers.