By Brandon Griggs, CNN
Conservationists in Kenya are receiving SMS messages these days from an unlikely source: Lions roaming the savannah.
No, the lions haven't somehow morphed into thumb-happy adolescents, texting messages such as "Just 8 a gazelle. Yum. LOL." Instead the animals wear GPS-enabled collars that send automated messages via wireless networks to researchers who map their locations.
"GPS collars have fundamentally changed the way that lion research is done, in that we are able to study lion movements in great detail in areas where it is usually impossible to follow them," says a post on the website of Living with Lions, one of the conservation research groups behind the project.
According to the group, the population of lions in Africa has plunged in recent years from more than 100,000 to about 30,000 - in part because local Maasai herders, concerned about lions preying on their livestock, have been poisoning the animals.
For years, scientists have tracked the movements of lions and other wild animals with VHF collars that emit radio signals. The data helps researchers to better understand the animals' social structure, mortality rates, feeding ecology and other behavior.
But that method requires workers in the field to search for the radio signal from the collar, then record the lion's location on a handheld GPS - a cumbersome process.
The newer GPS collars calculate the exact location of the lion every hour and send a text message to a dedicated server, which then translates it into an e-mail. The data then is aggregated on an open-source satellite map that displays the lions' movements, allowing researchers to know when the big cats have strayed too close to livestock herds.
Made by a U.S.-based company, Ground Lab, and Vectronic Aerospace of Berlin, Germany, the collars are costly – more than $3,000 apiece in some cases - and have been fitted on only 10 lions so far. But Living with Lions and related conservation groups are hoping to raise funds to buy more.
Ground Lab helped fund the lion-tracking program through more than $10,000 in donations on Kickstarter, a site that lets inventors and entrepreneurs seek crowdsourced funding for their projects.
The collars don't look very comfortable, but Living with Lions says that animal lovers shouldn't worry.
"Wild animals adjust to wearing a collar just as a dog does – very quickly," the group's site says. "In many cases, they barely seem aware of it even when it is newly affixed, and in all cases they adapt to it within a few hours."