Even if your estate is not strictly a wildlife estate, it’s important to know the condition of the veld and the health – or otherwise – of animal communities. The old adage – if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – is particularly true here. And, surprisingly, there is a fantastic app that you can download for free that will do just that.
Created by two Capetonians and originally designed to enable non-literate trackers to record their findings, CyberTracker is a ground-breaking initiative that has garnered numerous awards for its inventors, including the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, and the Wildlife Society’s Spatial Ecology and Telemetry Working Group (SETW) Award.
It all started when Louis Liebenberg spent a number of years doing anthropological research in the Kalahari with San, or Bushman, hunter-gatherers. He ended up spending months on end with the hunters, learned to track, and got to know and become friends with the !Xo community from Lone Tree in Botswana. Chatting round the campfire one night, some of the older hunters told him they were worried about the younger generation. They could no longer survive by hunter-gathering and needed to find employment. But that was really difficult,
of course, as they had no marketable skills. The only thing they could do – and they did it really well – was tracking. But, being illiterate, they had no way of turning that skill into a marketable asset.
So, Liebenberg teamed up with Justin Steventon, an IT student at the University of Cape Town. Between them they developed an icon-based, hand-held device that enabled trackers to accurately record their findings. The original CyberTracker was based on the Apple Newton tied in to a GPS so that observations could be recorded while the exact location and time was automatically attached to each piece of data. The data, once downloaded onto a desktop, could be analysed in a number of ways.
The real test of the software, the hardware, and the principle behind the whole thing was a programme of tracking the endangered black rhino in the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West. Most of the data were collected by two trackers employed by the park – Karel Benadie and James Minye. In the past, researchers who had used trackers to gather data had considered them merely field assistants – and had worked on the principle that the trackers had just ‘collected’ data. Liebenberg realised that the data – i.e. the tracks and signs – were lying out there in the field, and what the trackers provided was not raw data. They were results. The trackers were interpreting the data so that they could be further manipulated. For this reason, he named both these trackers as co-authors on the paper they published in the journal Pachyderm. This was proof of Liebenberg’s major thesis – that non-literate trackers can do science.
The CyberTracker has produced a number of unexpected advantages. Benadie, who was one of the first to benefit from the device, says that it helped him to improve his tracking skills in two ways. Firstly, because he was recording everything he saw, he paid attention to small signs he may have previously ignored and, secondly, he was inspired to accurately record everything as he knew that his children would one day be able to see his work. Interestingly, he says it also helped him in learning to read. The CyberTracker is icon-based, but the name of the animal is printed out next to the icon on the screen. So, as Benadie clicks on the icon for, for example, a rhino, he also reads the word
‘rhino’ next to it. Think back to how you learned to read. A nice, big colourful book with a picture of a cat and the word C-A-T printed out underneath it. Granted, it takes a bit longer when you’re older, but it is an ongoing learning process.
This was just the first step in the process of creating recognition for professional trackers, and it has contributed immensely to job creation, ecotourism and conservation. But, in the decades since its inception, CyberTracker has proved to be much, much more widely applicable than Liebenberg could ever have imagined. It is being effectively used in wildlife management, disaster relief, crime prevention, farming, and environmental management both in South Africa and abroad, and it’s contributed immensely to the growth and development of citizen science, as it allows non-scientists to gather data about – for example – birds, or leopard toads.
CyberTracker is basically a way of accurately, effectively and quickly gathering and recording spatial data so it can be used in practically any application, and the almost ubiquitous ownership of smart phones makes it now widely accessible. As it can be used on virtually any scale it’s perfect for collecting all kinds of data about the condition of residential estates – spots of erosion, broken lights, animal sightings – almost anything. Once it’s downloaded the data can be manipulated in a number of ways, making it a truly superb management tool. The software is available for free download on the CyberTracker website.
By Jennifer Stern