#1: Project Conception

Rub’ Al Khali dunes

This project’s beginnings go as far back as the early 90’s in the deserts of Eastern Saudi Arabia. My father,  who works in the country and has been obsessed with aviation all his life, took the family out to the dunes a few hours outside the city to fly one of the many Remote Controlled model aircrafts that he would bring into our lives. I was very young and could do nothing more than instantly lose control and probably plough it into the ground had I been left with the controls for long enough (an occurrence that would become exceedingly familiar to me many years later during the Desert Kit Fox Project), but RC aircrafts became the toys I grew up with.

The other side of the story intersected with me several years later while I was in India. We’ve admittedly done a terrible job of keeping them alive, but tigers have always been a part of the national consciousness.  As early as the 70s, researchers have been using pugmarks (aka footprints) to identify tigers and estimate their populations. Even the term comes from the Hindi word for ‘foot’ – pugh. While undoubtedly useful for the information they did provide, researchers began to see the flaws in the methods and worked to improve them.  At one point the situation became contested enough for ‘pugmark’ to become a dirty word in Indian conservation (Citation needed!).

Things started to come together in North Carolina, on Duke’s campus. Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai hosted a guest course on Non-Invasive wildlife monitoring at my school. After years of working with several species and tracking techniques in Zimbabwe, their research organization WildTrack now focuses on statistical processing of footprint images to identify endangered animals at the species, individual, age-class, and sex levels. The statistics behind it are incredibly thorough and identification success rates for the species they work with are over 95%.

Meanwhile, I had fallen in love with desert kit foxes and their habitat after being assigned to work on them as an intern at the Center for Biological Diversity. These foxes had been hit by a disease outbreak and aren’t a research grant-attracting species. What could be better than a non-invasive, inexpensive population estimation study? Right?

Right?

So it turns out that nothing prepares you for the desert like being in the desert. Did you know the desert is hot and windy? Shocking! It took all the naiveté in the world for me to think there would be foxes skittering around the desert leaving around lots of prints on the track plates I would leave for them.

Adarsh and I find cool lizards, and not much else.

In May 2013, during a small scoping mission with Adarsh Raju , the both of us realized there wasn’t a trace of a kit fox to be seen in 3 nights of searching and a few weeks later I would forcibly discover that the desert likes to burn and blow things away. Things like dusted track plates.

And it clicked. We were defeated but still had a few hours left. As Adarsh drove down endless desert roads that we had been crisscrossing all weekend, I blurted, “I need to use a drone”. It was the most natural thing in the world to me; all my life I have been seeing these toys fly at a height that would be perfect to photograph distinctive desert kit fox burrow entrances

A desert kit fox burrow found during fieldwork.

that were so few and far between. … But it turns out the word “drone” is as dirty as “pugmark” became by the 2000s. I lost count of how many times I heard “If it was doable someone would have done it already”. Ladies and Gents, if there is anything you take away from this post, let it be that nobody should ever believe that logic. Luckily for me, in addition to my aviation-enthusiast father, my family includes a robot-building engineer brother. We settled on a hobby grade mid-sized quadcopter mounted with a humble GoPro camera after dismissing acrobatic but difficult to fly fixed wing crafts, and $10,000 commercial aerial survey crafts. This is a newer version, but the similar original quadcopter was also around $1500 for a basic set up that I would require. Ready to Fly! Online order ships from California! Thousands of hobbyists do crazy acrobatics with it all the time – why shouldn’t I be able to have it putter around the desert in straight lines while taping foxes? Right?

Well, I was right this time. The proof is in the masters research that was approved for me to graduate with. The year between then and this post is a very long story, though.

Next in the Series: The set up

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Learning to love the desert before it’s too late

 

Silurian Valley, by Michael B. Gordon

There are few landscapes on Earth that can offer Big Land and Big Sky like the desert Southwest does. Its contradictory appeal lies in its minimalist aesthetic being one of its best features. Spend some time in the desert and you learn to find the beauty in everything that exists here – from the inexplicably chubby lizards to ancient scraggly creosote bush – for the sheer reason that they manage to exist.

That’s how I received my send-off to my summer-long stay in the Sonoran desert for the Desert Kit Fox Project. For weeks leading up to it, I was warned of its harshness.

“Stay hydrated or they’ll have to send a rescue team after you.”

“If a rattlesnake gets you, they won’t be able to find you for days.”

A coyote stands guard outside the State Prison’s palm trees

The hostility was compounded by human forces. Despite being a remote and uninhabited location, I had dramatic company in the form of the Chuckwalla Valley State Prison and Border Patrol agents who move through the area undetected like desert ninjas. I was told to expect my vehicle to be vandalized by people associated with the residents of the prison, and no matter how alone I thought I was, I could sometimes see the glint of an immaculate black SUV evidently watching me from miles away, where no roads could possibly exist. Conservation isn’t limited to the cute or touristy though; I went there convinced that the desert deserves attention no matter how harsh it is.

In a way, I was so wrong. The longer I spent in the desert, the more its harsh façade melted away, revealing an explosion of life and inviting warmth. During the day, languidly grazing iguanas and lizards were interrupted by my presence only to decide to completely ignore me, or engage in angry sets of push-ups to show me who runs things there. Desert cottontails would spring up from behind bushes and disappear faster than I could ever whip out a camera. Coyotes rejected the nocturnal life that all the other mammals of their size conform to in the desert, allowing me to put faces to the howls I heard in the night. All of that is just a pre-game show before nightfall, though. Night brings a spectacular light show with the Milky Way making an appearance during the darker hours. This is the backdrop for uncountable rodents, reptiles, bats, owls, foxes, and the same singing coyotes to live their lives. For those who can’t see the beauty in hypnotically patterned snakes and geckos, the stars are conventionally cute tennis ball-shaped kangaroo rats and of course, the housecat-sized desert kit fox. All of this life depends on remarkable vegetation biodiversity, from the humble creosote bush to the celebrity-status Saguaro.

A dog tag left behind by Patton’s troops

With such incredible company it’s hard to remember why the desert had such a formidable reputation to begin with. Chuckwalla Valley isn’t even in the most pristine condition. General Patton trained his troops here for combat in the deserts of North Africa in 1942. Slow growing vegetation is still recovering and military paraphernalia is still scattered across the valley.

 

For a while, the desert’s reputation and uninviting climate worked in its favor, saving it from urban sprawl. However in the last decade, massive federal subsidies for industrial-scale renewable energy projects encouraged applications to develop millions of acres of desert habitat with little protest from the general public. The destruction of achingly beautiful views for visitors to the desert does not compare to the loss of ecological value caused by indiscriminate project placement. Already, the most beautiful vistas are marred by ubiquitous powerlines, and now a checkerboard of renewable energy projects threatens to remove the final illusions of wilderness. Further North in the Mojave desert, a proposed solar project in Silurian Valley has been referred to as the poster child of careless renewable energy development in the desert. As the underdog of ecosystems, the desert does not have many to rally for its protection. The BLM has extended its public comment period on this project to May 28, 2014. To learn more about these issues, visit this series on KCET, and let BLM know what you think.

A complete double rainbow! … and powerlines.

 

With the exception of Silurian Valley by Michael B. Gordon, all photos property of The Desert Kit Fox Project, by Adarsh Raju, Dipika Kadaba, Ben Delancey, and Tim Rose.

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Hello early visitors!

You’ve probably found this site through our indiegogo page, youtube video, or facebook page. There’s not much extra content to be found on our supporting pages that isn’t on our indiegogo campaign page, but stay tuned – the project is just beginning.

Over the next few days, I’ll post more about the GIS (Geographic Information System) habitat model that is the foundation behind the survey, and some photos and videos of us tinkering with a practice copter drone we bought on amazon. We totally expect to destroy it at least a little. Is there something specific that you’re excited to see more of? Let me know by posting a comment!

-Dipika

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