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.
Technology is allowing anyone to contribute to scientific research, with implications for conservation, disease prevention and much more.
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.
CyberTracker fuses ancient knowledge with cutting-edge technology
By Nancy Bazilchuk
In 2003, trained trackers combing the rich jungles in the Republic of Congo’s Lossi Sanctuary for gorillas and chimpanzees stumbled upon a disturbing trend. Duikers, dog-sized antelopes that weave and dive through the jungle’s dense undergrowth, were dying at an astounding rate—local indices dropped 50 percent compared to a 2000 census. Gorillas and chimpanzees were dying at similar rates. Blood tests confirmed the culprit was the deadly virus Ebola. The surprise was that no one had previously known that Ebola killed antelopes.
Yet there was no doubt the terrible data were real. The findings were based on hundreds of observations precisely mapped with CyberTracker software. CyberTracker allows hand-held computers to use stylized images instead of text for data entry. Its heart is a menu of icons that depict whatever elements researchers choose. Trackers need only select a pre-programmed image that matches what they see—a grazing antelope, a carabid beetle—and with one tap, the observation is recorded and paired with geographic coordinates via a Global Positioning System (GPS) link. Trackers hardly have to break stride as they work, which allows enormous numbers of data points to be amassed with little effort. The information can be downloaded to a computer and immediately mapped, thus enabling scientists to make real-time observations about trends, such as the ones from Lossi Sanctuary that showed duiker declines.
The program’s greatest strength, and the feature that sets it apart from its competitors, is its ability to transcend language and culture because of its reliance on images, not words, for data entry.
CyberTracker creator Louis Liebenberg, a South African scientist and author, first came up with the idea in 1996 while tracking with a group of Kalahari Bushmen. Liebenberg realized that he could help save the Bushmen’s rapidly disappearing knowledge if he could find a way to help trackers, who could neither read nor write, record their observations. Thus CyberTracker was born.
CyberTracker’s biggest impact has been in South Africa’s national park system. Kruger National Park official Judith Kruger says that rangers use 110 hand-held computers daily to record sightings on patrol—everything from broken fences to elephant-damaged trees to invertebrates. Liebenberg and two rangers from South Africa’s Karoo National Park used it to document seasonal shifts in black rhino feeding behavior. And CyberTracker is being used to record garbage found littering beaches in Gabon as a way to persuade source nations to help clean up. The program allows for remarkable precision: one 500-m-long section of shoreline in Loango National Park was covered with 535 plastic water bottles and 560 flip-flops among more than 3,000 bits of trash.
The software is free and has been downloaded by more than 6,000 people since it was first made available on the Internet in 2000. About 500 users from 30 countries have registered the software—from the entire Spanish National Park Service to a multinational research group in the Arctic to individual trackers in the U.S. With the help of a 2-million-Euro (approximately US$2 million) grant from the European Commission and Conservation International, Liebenberg is developing the next generation of Cyber-Tracker. Three versions will offer increasingly complex programming features along with conservation-specific analysis tools to allow the calculation of standard measures such as Patrol Effort or Index of Abundance.
Liebenberg says the biggest benefit has been to give an authoritative, scientific “voice” to skilled trackers in Africa who can’t otherwise share their knowledge because they can’t write. Karel Benadie is a ranger and expert rhino tracker who worked with Lieben-berg in Karoo National Park. He told Liebenberg that his inability to write down his rhino observations meant “the PhDs would never listen to him before,” Liebenberg said. With Cyber-Tracker, “Now they do.”
More on the Tracker: www.cybertracker.co.za
Liebenberg, L. et al. 1999. Rhino tracking with the CyberTracker field computer. Pachyderm 27:59-61.
Leroy, E. et al. 2004. Multiple Ebola virus transmission events and rapid decline of Central African wildlife. Science 303:387-390.
About the Author
Nancy Bazilchuk is a freelance writer based in Trondheim, Norway.
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.”