Satellite tracking has proven to be a very effective means of tracking animals, whether they are large or small; flying, swimming or walking on land. The Global Positioning System (or GPS) has received some criticism in the context of using this system or technology on wild animals, as these animals, such as tigers, have been known to destroy the antennae, thereby breaking the satellite link. This is expensive to remedy and bothersome for those having to endure the process of tracking, tagging and following these wild animals. However, this is certainly not the norm, and satellite tracking has been largely successful in many countries and conservation initiatives.
Once an animal has been found, it is sedated and then fitted with a tiny transmitter, which is attached to a little harness or strap on the animal (frequently around the neck or on the leg, wing or fin, depending on the species being tagged). The device will be designed according to each animal, as it needs to be comfortable and light. The device used for tigers, for example, would never work for penguins. Therefore, each species needs to have a customised transmitter.
There are a number of receivers high above ground level, which pick up the signal of the transmitter carrier via satellites and convey this info to the researchers on land, even if they are thousands of kilometres away from the animal being observed. When the information is being conveyed from the animal to the receiver, it is called an uplink. When it is sent from the satellite back to the researchers, it is called a downlink.
Satellite transmitters can reveal a surprisingly large amount of information to the researchers monitoring the feedback. For instance, they can tell the researchers whether the animal is dead or alive (i.e. moving or not moving), migrating, interacting with other animals that have been tagged (even potential prey or predators), how fast the animal is moving, and so on. This information is then translated into migratory maps, breeding patterns, and other useful pieces of information for the further study of the animals. This is particularly important for endangered species like tigers, since they are seldom spotted in their natural habitats for long periods of time; preferring to hide in the seclusion of dense grasses and jungles.
When done properly, the tracking device that communicates with the satellite should not hurt or inconvenience the animal in any way. In fact, they are designed so that, within a short period of time, the animal will not even be aware of its presence. In addition, the landscape and weather will not affect the transmission adversely.
Some of the transmitters available today offer a video function, allowing the researchers to see what the tiger sees as it makes its way through its natural habitat. This provides unique insights into its hunting habits, encounters with other animals and care of newborn cubs. All of these efforts are made with the primary goal of tiger conservation in a time when we are clutching onto the last remaining members of this magnificent species.