This video from ABC News: Tracking Animals With GPS from the year 2000 takes us back to the early days of CyberTracker. At that time, we had one CyberTracker running on an Apple Newton unit in the Karoo National Park in South Africa and just started our second project with the Kwe San Bushmen in Namibia, using the PalmPilot.
UNEP Global Environmental Alert Services
Photo: CyberTracker workshop organised by the African Wildlife Foundation
The illegal trade of animals – for luxury goods, traditional medicine or cultural ceremonies, pets, entertainment, and even research – is a major threat to wildlife conservation and welfare (Baker et al., 2013). Poachers and illegal traders use highly sophisticated and rapidly changing techniques to avoid detection. To keep pace with the “war on wildlife”, conservation and law enforcement communities have started to adopt cutting-edge military tools and techniques. High-tech equipment can magnify counter-poaching efforts without requiring armies of rangers or risking lives. Tools include acoustic traps, mobile technology, mikrokopters, radio frequency identification tags, encrypted data digital networks, camera traps, DNA testing, radio collars, metal scanners, and satellite imagery.
Wildlife tracking is making a comeback, attracting outdoor enthusiasts and biologists alike. For some it’s an engrossing hobby; for others it’s a critical contribution to conservation.
Even as tracking has captured the public’s interest, there has been a decline in natural history courses offered at universities. Across the country, schools have eliminated classes in basic taxonomy, ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology–the list goes on–causing a flurry of journal papers expressing concern about the future of organismal science and the next generation. “It is not trendy, it doesn’t bring in the big grants, or those kinds of subjects are considered to be old fashioned,” says Reed Noss, an ecologist at the University of Central Florida and author of essays on the decline. (Today many conservation biology students devote themselves to statistical modeling and DNA analysis.) “So very few people are coming out of graduate school even trained and able to teach those kinds of courses.”
“We lose a basic connection to nature when we don’t immerse ourselves in natural history and only deal with mathematical abstractions and theory,” says Noss, who laments changes in environmental education since the 1970s. “There was already a shift away from classification and toward experiential education where basically you played games with the kid. No one ever wanted to name anything because ‘No, that’ll turn kids off to nature if they make it hard work.’ ” The danger of these two extremes is that by “losing specialists equipped to identify organisms, we’re not able to track the extinction crisis nearly as adequately as in the past.”
14 January 2014
Revolutionary new energy sources may result in the most disruptive changes in human history. Any one of these potential energy sources may become a Black Swan event. This may have both positive as well as unintended consequences for climate change and biodiversity conservation. While the implications for climate change would be positive, severe disruptions in land-use patterns will require intensive monitoring of biodiversity and proactive conservation management.
Accelerated fossil fuel use could conceivably push the Earth’s climate past a dangerous tipping point resulting in runaway global warming. James Hansen warns that we are on the verge of crossing a tipping point into catastrophic climate change. More and more evidence suggest that we could potentially face runaway climate change at a much faster rate than anticipated. While we need to actively pursue all alternative energy options, including energy conservation, novel energy solutions may be essential. We need to provide the growing energy needs of a growing world economy, both in terms of population growth as well as increasing consumption due to growing wealth required to eliminate poverty of the growing population.
Since the German physicist Hans Bethe first explained how nuclear fusion powers the stars in 1939, there have been many attempts to harness fusion on Earth with mixed success.
The largest government-sponsored fusion projects include ITER in France and the NIF in the USA. In 2007 construction work started on ITER in Cadarache, France. And in 2009 the US National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, opened. NIF uses powerful lasers to compress and heat hydrogen fuel and so initiate fusion for military and astrophysical research. These large research programmes, however, may take decades to become economically viable.
An interesting potential Black Swan is the independent, privately funded project that was initiated in 2002 when Dr. Michel Laberge founded General Fusion to develop economically viable fusion energy. His key insight was realizing that Magnetized Target Fusion, with the aid of modern electronics, materials, and advances in plasma physics, could provide a faster, lower cost, and more practical path to fusion power.
General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion system uses a sphere, filled with molten lead-lithium that is pumped to form a vortex. On each pulse, magnetically-confined plasma is injected into the vortex. Around the sphere, an array of pistons impact and drive a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions.
Novel Forms of Energy
Perhaps the most surprising Black Swans may come in the form of novel solutions that may be found in nuclear processes that have not yet been harnessed, which could result in an unexpected energy revolution.
As a student in 1984 at the University of Cape Town I studied physics under Prof Jan Rafelski (now at The University of Arizona). At the time one of his fields of research was the physics of table top Muon-catalyzed fusion (Rafelski and Jones, 1987). Since then I had a life-long interest in the possibility of clean fusion energy.
One of the most exciting recent developments in physics is in the field of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). At present it is not clear when LENR could replace fossil fuels. But if successful, LENR may result in the most disruptive energy revolution in history. It provides the potential for limitless, cheap, safe, distributed, clean energy that can be used on a small scale to provide energy for a single home or scaled up for industrial uses.
In a video released on January 16, 2014 at Serious Science, MIT Associate Prof. Peter Hagelstein talks about the Problem of Cold Fusion and the Fleischmann and Pons experiment, condensed matter physics, and the laws of conservation of energy in momentum.
In 2009 Scott Pelley of the CBS News TV programme “60 Minutes” did a story on “Cold Fusion Hot Again.” A video was released by Joe Zawodny (2012) of NASA and in 2013 Forbes reported on research conducted by NASA on LENR. An “Overview of Theoretical and Experimental Progress in Low Energy Nuclear Reactions” was presented by Francesco Celani (2012) and Yogendra Srivastava (2012) at a CERN Colloquium in March 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland. Robert Godes (2012) maintains that Brillion Energy Corporation will be able to generate power at a fourth of the cost of coal or natural gas power.
Two physicists, Giuliano Preparata (Univ. Statute di Milano) and Allan Widom (Northeastern University, Boston), have proposed a theoretical model of the physics of LENR (Srivastava, 2012). While various chemical elements may be involved, one version of LENR involves Nickel (one of the most abundant elements on Earth) and Hydrogen, which would provide a limitless supply of cheap energy. The by-products would be the transmutation of Nickel into Copper, with no radioactive waste, greenhouse gases or any other form of dangerous pollution (Srivastava, Widom and Larsen, 2010).
In May 2013 an independent report has been published on the “Indication of anomalous heat energy production in a reactor device containing hydrogen loaded nickel powder” (Levi, et. Al. 2013). The authors report that: “Even by the most conservative assumptions as to the errors in the measurements, the result is still one order of magnitude greater than conventional energy sources.” News reports have been featured in Forbes (Gibbs, 2013) and Wired (Hambling, 2013).
The inventor Andrea Rossi aims to bring a commercial product to the market within the next few years. On January 24, 2014, it was announced that Industrial Heat has acquired Rossi’s E-Cat Technology. “The world needs a new, clean and efficient energy source. Such a technology would raise the standard of living in developing countries and reduce the environmental impact of producing energy… Even by the most conservative assumptions as to the errors in the measurements, the result is still one order of magnitude greater than conventional energy sources”
In competition with Rossi, companies like Defklaion Green Technologies, Nichenergy, Brillouin Energy Corporation, Lattice Energy LLC as well as high-profile companies like Mitsubishi and Toyota are also working on commercializing energy generation based on LENR.
An update in Wired magazine, “Cold fusion continues to progress stealthily into the mainstream,” suggests that 2014 is set to be a very interesting year for Low Energy Nuclear Reactions.
Implications for Climate Change and Biodiversity
If any one of these potential energy solutions can successfully be brought to the market, it will be a true Black Swan event that may have profound implications for climate change and the conservation of biodiversity.
Climate Change: It may completely replace fossil fuels, halting the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Furthermore, inexpensive clean energy may make it possible to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to bring it back to pre-industrial levels, thereby stabilizing the climate. However, even if we stopped using fossil fuels, we may still experience disruptive climate over the next 100 years.
Water and Food Production: It may become viable to desalinate sea water on a large scale, minimizing the need to extract fresh water from rivers. Vertical farming (Despommier, 2009) may become more efficient than conventional farming. Large areas of farm land may revert back to wilderness. While this may increase the area of land available for biodiversity, it is not clear what the unintended impacts may be of the uncontrolled spread of alien species on abandoned farmland.
Social and Economic Disruptions: Accelerated urbanization and depopulation of rural areas. Inexpensive energy may accelerate the automation of industry resulting in large-scale unemployment. This may require a fundamental restructuring of the economy.
Biodiversity: An irregular climate and the disruptive impacts on land-use patterns may require intensive monitoring of biodiversity to manage the spread of alien species and the influx of indigenous species onto abandoned farm land.
CyberTracker’s Vision: In the future millions of citizen scientists worldwide may use their smartphones to monitor the entire global ecosystem in real time. Large-scale unemployment may provide an opportunity to create “Green jobs” to stimulate the economy and provide the manpower needed for conservation management. Intensive monitoring may reveal new data on the complexities of ecosystems evolving over time in response to disruptions in land-use patterns. Intelligent computers may be used to analyse huge quantities of complex data and predict future trends.
Celani, F. 2012. “Overview of Theoretical and Experimental Progress in Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR).” CERN Colloquium Thursday March 22, 2012, Geneva, Switzerland.
Despommier, D. 2009. “The Rise of Vertical Farms.” Scientific American, Vol. 301. No. 5.
Gibs, M. 2013. “Finally! Independent Testing Of Rossi’s E-Cat Cold Fusion Device: Maybe The World Will Change After All.” Forbes.
Godes, R. 2012. Interview with Robert Godes, inventor of the controlled electron capture reaction (CECR) being commercialized by Brillion Energy Corporation of Berkeley.
Hambling, D. 2013. “Cold Fusion gets red hot and aims for EU” Wired.
Hansen, J. 2009. Storms of my Grandchildren. The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save humanity. London: Bloomsbury
Levi, G, E. Foschi, T. Hartman, B. Hӧistad, R. Pettersson, L. Tegnér and H. Essén. 2013. Indication of anomalous heat energy production in a reactor device containing hydrogen loaded nickel powder.
Pelley, S. 2009. “Cold Fusion Hot Again.” CBS News TV programme “60 Minutes.”
Rafelski, J. and S. E. Jones. 1987. “Cold Nuclear Fusion.” Scientific American, Vol. 257, No. 7.
Srivastava, Y. N., A. Widom and L. Larsen. 2010. “A primer for electroweak induced low-energy nuclear reactions.”
Srivastava, Y. N. 2012. “Overview of LENT Theory Low Energy Nuclear Transmutations.” CERN Colloquium Thursday March 22, 2012, Geneva, Switzerland.
The Origin of Science
CyberTracker has grown from a simple hypothesis: The art of tracking may have been the origin of science. Science may have evolved more than a hundred thousand years ago with the evolution of modern hunter-gatherers. Scientific reasoning may therefore be an innate ability of the human mind. This may have far-reaching implications for indigenous knowledge, citizen science and self-education.
The Persistence Hunt
In 1990 I ran the persistence hunt with !Nate at Lone Tree in the Kalahari. The persistence hunt involves running down an antelope in the mid-day heat on an extremely hot day – chasing the antelope until it drops from heat exhaustion. This may well be one of the oldest forms of hunting, going back two million years ago, long before humans invented bows and arrows. Persistence hunting may have played a critical role in the evolution of the art of tracking and the origin of science.
In 2001 I worked with David Attenborough on the BBC film showing Karoha doing the Persistence Hunt. You can watch Karoha running down a kudu in the video at
Reviving the Dying Art of Tracking
After running the persistence hunt in 1990 !Nate asked me to help them. They could no longer live as hunter-gathers and needed jobs. Wildlife in the Kalahari has been decimated by fences that cut off migration routes. It was no longer viable to live as hunter-gatherers. And the art of tracking was dying out. After hundreds of thousands of years, traditional tracking skills may soon be lost. Yet tracking can be developed into a new science with far-reaching implications for nature conservation.
We had lengthy discussions around the fire, and it was decided that I should try to find a way to create jobs for trackers. Only by developing tracking into a modern profession, will tracking itself survive into the future. !Nam!kabe agreed that this will be good for the future. But he also had the wisdom to know that it will take a long time. This was for the younger generation, he said, it will not be for him. When he died in 1995 his exceptional tracking expertise was irretrievably lost. He was one of the last of the old generation hunters and one of the best trackers. !Nam!kabe inspired the creation of the Master Tracker certificate – the highest standard of tracking that others could aspire to.
The Tracker Evaluation methodology that I developed provide certification of practical tracking skills, thereby enabling trackers to get jobs in ecotourism, as rangers in anti-poaching units, in wildlife monitoring and scientific research. Tracker evaluations have since 1994 resulted in a steady growth of trackers with increasing levels of tracking skills, thereby reviving tracking as a modern profession.
The Tracker Institute was established as a centre of learning for the highest standards of excellence in the art of tracking and to develop the next generation of Master Trackers. The Tracker Institute is situated in the Thornybush Nature Reserve, providing the opportunity to track lion, leopard, rhino and a wide diversity of species. In addition to providing intensive individual mentoring of practical tracking skills, it will also serve as a research institute.
If the art of tracking was the origin of science, then modern-day trackers should be able to do science. However, some of the best traditional trackers in Africa cannot read or write. To overcome this problem, the CyberTracker software was developed with an icon-based user interface that enabled expert non-literate trackers to record complex geo-referenced observations on animal behaviour.
In 1996 I teamed up with Justin Steventon, a brilliant young computer science student at the University of Cape Town. The CyberTracker user interface was developed with the help of Karel Benadie, a tracker working in the Karoo National Park in South Africa. Together with fellow ranger and tracker James Minye, they tracked the highly endangered Black Rhino, recording their movements and behaviour in minute detail. Together we published a paper on rhino feeding behaviour in the journal Pachyderm. This is perhaps the first paper based on data gathered independently by two non-literate trackers, confirming a hypothesis about rhino feeding behaviour put forward by the trackers. It was a demonstration that non-literate trackers can do science.
In 2008 the Western Kgalagadi Conservation Corridor Project was initiated, funded by Conservation International for a three-year period. Community members from several villages were employed to use the CyberTracker to conduct track counts. This was the first time that !Nate and Karoha were employed in a major research project, enabling them to use their traditional tracking skills, using the CyberTracker, in a modern context.
You can watch Karoha using the CyberTracker in the video at
Involving scientists and local communities in key areas of biodiversity, CyberTracker combines indigenous knowledge with state-of-the-art computer and satellite technology.
Towards a New Science
From its origins with the Kalahari Bushmen, CyberTracker projects have been initiated to monitor gorillas in the Congo, butterflies in Switzerland, the Sumatran rhino in Borneo, jaguars in Costa Rica, birds in the Amazon, wild horses in Mongolia, dolphins in California, marine turtles in the Pacific and whales in Antarctica.
CyberTracker is being used by indigenous communities, in national parks, scientific research, citizen science, environmental education, forestry, farming, social surveys, health surveys, crime prevention and disaster relief.
The CyberTracker story is captured in the powerful image of Karoha holding the CyberTracker, with his hunting bag slung over his shoulder. The image symbolises the cultural transition from hunter-gatherer to the modern computer age. Persistence hunting may be the most ancient form of hunting, possibly going back two million years, long before the invention of the bow-and-arrow or the domestication of dogs. After two million years, Karoha may well be the last hunter who has been doing the persistence hunt. Yet of all the hunters at Kagcae, Karoha is the most proficient in using the CyberTracker. In Karoha, one individual not only represents one of the most ancient human traditions, but also the future of tracking with computers.
Karoha’s story represents the most profound cultural leap – a story that gives hope for the future: The ancient art of tracking can be revitalized and developed into a new science to monitor the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
At a more fundamental level, it shows us that anyone, regardless of their level of education, whether or not they can read or write, regardless of their cultural background, can make a contribution to science.