Capturing animals: Practical and ethical aspects of research

Capturing animals: Practical and ethical aspects of research

6 November 2014

The roundtable, Methods of Monitoring and Capturing Animals, was held on 3 November as part of the Russian Geographical Society Festival.


Experts discussed the positive and negative aspects of capturing animals, as well as the ethical dimensions of using this method to study wildlife.


Nikita Ovsyanikov (DSc, Biology), an Honoured Polar Explorer of Russia, says that scientists need to determine whether animals fitted with tracking collars exhibit normal, healthy or behaviour that suggests that the animal is suffering and slowly dying – that is, whether animals should be tagged at all. After being caught, animals with tracking collars may change their natural behaviour in the wild.


“This is an extremely invasive procedure,” Ovsyanikov said. “In addition to that, before an animal is captured, it is pursued by helicopter like in a military attack.”


Ovsaynikov told a story that happened on Spitsbergen Island in 2010: a female polar bear with a cub was rubbing herself against the snow for about half an hour in an attempt to get rid of a collar. The fur on its neck was already worn and the skin infected.  


According to Ovsyanikov, tagging as a research method was introduced about 30 years ago. Initially, polar bear studies relied on more conventional methods, but satellite telemetry led to critical advancements in tracking. Today, data collected from the tracking collars cannot answer some crucial questions. Ovsyanikov believes that this type of research should be avoided. Invasive methods should be kept to a minimum and used only if absolutely necessary. In addition, every precaution should be taken to ensure that animals are not harmed during capture, and the researchers involved should be highly competent.


Vyacheslav Rozhnov (DSc, Biology), an associate member of Russian Academy of Sciences, Deputy Director of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution under the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes that the use of tracking collars and the capture of animals will allow scientists to unravel many mysteries surrounding the lives of animals, in particular those of rare species, which will aid efforts to protect and save them. 


In particular, he believes these types of methods should be used to study the distribution pattern of the polar bear population.


Is there an alternative to using satellite transmitters when studying rare species, such as camera traps? Rozhnov believes this method is good for big cats but not for polar bears because it is impossible to cover their entire habitat with camera traps. Satellite technology helped scientists learn about the size, structure and migration patterns of the polar bear population. “Current research techniques do not allow scientists to obtain exhaustive information about animals’ migration patterns without satellite transmitters,” Rozhnov said. These devices are also used to monitor animals that have been released into the wild after rehabilitation.


To avoid the negative effects of tracking collars, these devices come with a “self-release” function that allows animals to shed the collar if necessary.