Wired Wilderness



Wired Wilderness by Etienne Benson . Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press , 2010 . ISBN : 978-0-8018-9710-8 . £28.50 .

I was one of the first to try radio tracking in Britain. I recall the frustration of arguing with officialdom about the legal issues associated with hedgehogs carrying radio transmitters. After many months, it was finally agreed that my animals would be licensed as ‘testing and development stations’ and that I should retain a log of everything said during transmissions. However, as this book reveals, my travails were as nothing compared to those faced by the early pioneers of radio tracking in the USA!

By exhaustive trawls though official correspondence, personal interviews, archive and library searches, the author documents the social and political context in which radio tracking developed. We are so accustomed to seeing the technique in use on wildlife TV films that it's hard to see what the problem might have been. However, it seems that early plans to track bears in national parks (for good bear conservation reasons) ran into fundamental objections regarding the nature of protected wilderness. Does sticking a radio on an animal compromise its ‘wildness’? Apparently there were important people who thought it did and that invalidating the fundamental concept of wilderness was too high a price to pay for whatever might be learned. This battle was fought out in the press, through official exchanges and in the face of foot-dragging by those who were opposed to this type of research and feared that key principles might be overtaken by the need to pursue purely scientific objectives. Radio tracking requires animals to be immobilised, with a small but real risk of fatalities. Just one dead bear (or tiger or whale) adds petrol to the flames of controversy.

Chapter 3 reviews the (American) use of radio tracking to study movements and abundance of tigers in India. Similar problems arose there too, with the added complications of perceived ‘scientific imperialism’, a complex political context (sometimes nothing to do with wildlife) and personality clashes. Accommodating visiting VIPs and wealthy donors (not all of them in favour of radio tracking) was a highly sensitive issue and disrupted studies, but not half as much as closing the national park to allow Royalty its customary opportunity to hunt tigers and other wildlife.

Moving on to the tagging of whales and dolphins added yet more background issues, notably the animal welfare lobby, popular sentiment regarding cetaceans and commercial pressures from major public attractions wishing to capture and exhibit the animals (especially killer whales).

If you want to read a gripping tale of wildlife research in the face of constant aggravation, this is it! The focus is entirely American, but then they did invent the idea of radio tracking and first applied it. Later developments by others, including use of the Argos satellite and the potential use of camera traps instead of radio collars to study movements and individuals, forms the final comment in the book. It is suggested that perhaps we may have moved on technically and also that a compromise has been reached between the public interest in knowing more about large animals, and public concern for their wellbeing and for the integrity of wild places.