11 July 2007

Botswana: CyberTrackers of the Kalahari

In this award-winning business case, technology opens new job opportunities and allows Bushmen to share their valuable knowledge to conserve the environment.

That indispensable electronic tool of every rising young executive, the personal digital assistant (PDA), has been matched to the traditional knowledge of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert to give Africa a new profession: digital wildlife tracker.

The high-tech wildlife trackers have been used against poachers, in ecotourism, environmental education, research and monitoring. The free software that links up traditional knowledge to electronic data mapping has been applied around the world to social surveys, organic farming, integrated pest management and disaster relief.

Capturing skills

The new profession sprang from the work of Louis Liebenberg, a South African conservation scientist who learned tracking from bow-and-arrow hunters in Botswana. He recognized the importance of their skills and knowledge for conservation — and how little it was valued by protection authorities, partly because the Bushmen could not read or write.

With former University of Cape Town computer scientist Justin Steventon, Mr Liebenberg developed a hand-held computer and software to capture their knowledge. He called the system CyberTracker. The computer displays a palette of symbols representing more than 40 animal species, subspecies and plants. The icons also cover activities such as drinking, feeding, running, fighting, mating and sleeping. Pressing an icon records a sighting or other indications. Each screen allows the user to record increasingly detailed information. They found that one tracker might record up to 300 observations in a day.

Connected to a satellite navigational system in 1996, the hand-held computer automatically recorded the details, time, date and exact location. This information was processed on a base-station computer to create maps and charts of animal movements and feeding habits. Today, all the data collection can be done on a PDA and worked on a personal computer. The free software used to turn a tracker into a digital wildlife tracker has now been downloaded over 25,000 times in more than 50 countries.

When Mr Liebenberg received a Rolex Award for Enterprise for his work with CyberTracker, the European Union funded work that enabled him to set up a non-governmental organization to develop and distribute the software as part of his effort to establish a worldwide network to monitor wildlife (http://www.cybertracker.org). Mr Liebenberg’s plan was to hand over management to someone else and go back to research exclusively, but so far that remains a dream, and he now also spends time evaluating trackers for certification.

The scientist’s efforts had a social development goal from the start. “I set out to show that there is an alternative for the desperately downtrodden and impoverished Bushmen whose understanding of nature and its rhythms is unparalleled,” he says. The illiterate trackers who carried out the first project, a detailed study of the black rhinoceros, were able to publish their findings in a respected scientific journal with the aid of Mr Liebenberg and Mr Steventon.

Certified trackers now run into the hundreds. Mr Liebenberg runs tracker certificate programmes in South Africa at the Thorny Bush Nature Reserve, a private reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park, and the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. Others are now also organized in the United States.

For more information about CyberTracker, see http://www.cybertracker.org

* Peter Hulm is a contributing editor of Trade Forum.

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