Reviving a dying art

by Alexa Schoof Marketos

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Louis Liebenberg’s revolutionary CyberTracker, a method of GPS-supported field data collection that replicates the ancient art of tracking, is now available as an Android-compatible version for use on many tablets and smartphones.This major step forward in the CyberTracker project is likely to bring about a quantum leap in the number of users worldwide for a multitude of purposes.

In the 1990s, Louis Liebenberg’s intention was simply to revive the dying art of tracking. This has taken the South African scientist and tracking expert much further than he had anticipated, leading him to implement a multi-pronged, constantly evolving approach, harnessing technology, community engagement and academic research to safeguard this ancient skill.

Working with software developer Justin Steventon, Liebenberg’s original solution was to develop a state-of-the-art conservation tool, CyberTracker, for which he won a Rolex Award in 1998.This software can be loaded on most hand-held computers, but its innovation and effectiveness lie in the use of stylized images, rather than words, for data capturing: an easily customized menu of icons can be adapted to any user requirement and a simple tap on the relevant icon records the observation and its exact geographic location.

Liebenberg is continually refining and upgrading CyberTracker, and, in early 2013, he released an Android-compatible version. “This means the application can now be used on tablets or smartphones,” explains Liebenberg. “My next upgrade will, I hope, enable CyberTracker for the iPhone, but software development is expensive, and obtaining funding is difficult. My work and my passion are in the field, but to raise funds I need to be in the city. It is a dilemma.”

Free online

CyberTracker is available free online and, to date, there have been more than 70,000 downloads in 210 countries (compared with about 30,000 in 75 countries up until 2008). “Distributing CyberTracker as freeware has allowed numerous independent initiatives to get off the ground, which I hope will result in the unrestricted growth of environmental monitoring projects worldwide,” says Liebenberg.

Research in South Africa’s game reserves has been boosted by CyberTracker, as Welgevonden Private Game Reserve’s Nungubane Game Lodge general manager Richard Blackshaw relates: “The reserve researchers use CyberTracker and they always comment on how fantastic it is to use in the field, that it has made their jobs so much easier. For our rangers, it helps as we can now identify and log specific animals at specific locations, significantly improving our ability to locate rare species on our game drives.”

CyberTracker is extremely versatile. It is being used for scientific research, citizen science, education, farming, social and health surveys, crime prevention and disaster relief. “A project in eastern Indonesia used the software to identify gaps in health services and to enable more effective and equitable delivery of scarce health resources to remote regions,” explains Liebenberg.

“In South Africa the software is being used to help reduce rhino poaching: CyberTracker can track individual rhinos by identifying the distinctive pattern of cracks in their hoofs. By tracking their movements, we can know where rhinos drink and sleep, and scarce anti-poaching units can be moved to those areas where rhinos are most vulnerable. As every person has an individual mannerism in the way he or she walks, leaving a ‘signature’ in his or her spoor, expert trackers can also track the poachers themselves.”

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of expert trackers. South Africa has only three Master Trackers (the highest grading a tracker can achieve) and Botswana four. According to Liebenberg, it will take at least another 10 to 20 years before a strong core of Master Trackers can be trained.

In 2012, Liebenberg established the Tracker Institute within the Thornybush Game Reserve in the greater Kruger National Park, South Africa, to mentor and train trackers. He is currently mentoring 12 potential Senior Trackers, including three women, and three potential Master Trackers. “Tracking needs to be recognized as a specialized profession because as long as trackers are held in low esteem, young people will have no motivation to qualify themselves as trackers,” Liebenberg explains. “My aim is to mentor the next generation of Master Trackers, and having female Senior Trackers on board will greatly help to break down the stereotypes and attract a broader field of trackers.”

To further enhance the status of tracking, Liebenberg has published a book (his fifth) entitled The Origin of Science: On the Evolutionary Roots of Science and its Implications for Self-Education and Citizen Science. Available as a free, downloadable PDF on cybertracker.org, the book addresses how the human mind evolved the cognitive ability for scientific reasoning, which Liebenberg believes is an innate ability in all humans.

He theorizes that the ability of early humans to track animals reflected and developed this evolutionary path. The book has received favourable reviews: Steven Pinker, Harvard University professor of psychology and leading author, says: “His data are precious, his stories gripping and his theory is a major insight into the nature and origins of scientific thinking, and thus of what makes us unique as a species.”

Liebenberg was prompted to write the book to open the world of science to ordinary people, people whom he believes have been discouraged from participating in science because of its increasingly professionalized nature. “If I can encourage even a small number of young, innovative people to follow their passion for science, the impact on science could be significant. Moreover, the implications for community participation in science are far-reaching. Imagine communities throughout the world gathering data…citizens gathering data on birds, animals, plants…millions of people all over the world, having their data on the Internet, creating a worldwide network to monitor the global ecosystems in real time.”

With CyberTracker as the tool behind the science, Liebenberg is making a significant and practical contribution to sustaining our environment.

Read more at Rolex Awards Blog & News

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