Go on a tour of Mkhambathi Nature Reserve in Google Earth

Posted on June 24th, 2013 in Featured Conservation,General,Google Geo Tools,Media,New Content by Alta

Protected areas are the cornerstone of global conservation efforts. They maintain functioning natural ecosystems, are set to act as refuges for biodiversity and maintain ecological processes that provide valuable ecosystem and cultural services to society.

Yet the idea of setting land aside for safeguarding and public enjoyment didn’t come about because of some cost-benefit or sustainability analysis or ecosystem service valuation. Rather, for hundreds of years, people who have advocated and worked to set aside special areas, be they indigenous communities in Ghana, or early advocates of the more modern concept of national parks, were driven to do so by a much simpler motivation: a love of nature.

To paraphrase the Senegalese naturalist Baba Moual: ultimately, we protect what we love.

However, whereas there is no shortage of places in Africa to love, we can only love what we know, or at least, know about. And in a world where our lives are increasingly disconnected and removed from nature, “to know” might require someone to tell us about our special places, what makes them so, and why they’re worth protecting.

One person who realizes the importance of this is photographer and writer Scott Ramsay.

In June 2011 Scott set off on his first “Year in the Wild”. In just over a year, he travelled to 31 of South Africa’s national parks and nature reserves. He interviewed rangers, community leaders, ecologists, activists, researchers and school kids, and translated what he had learned and discovered through photographs, blog posts, and magazine articles. His aim: to promote the appreciation of these wild places and to inspire people to go and visit them for themselves.

For best viewing, you can also play the tour in Google Earth. Download the KMZ file (17MB) for Google Earth by clicking on this link: http://goo.gl/AozLj

Being in the business of making conservation more visible and accessible ourselves, albeit through maps rather than photographs, we recently teamed up with Scott to create a virtual tour of the Wild Coast’s Mkhambathi Nature Reserve.  In combining the contextual power of Google Earth with Scott’s captivating photographs, we hoped that we could better share not only images, maps and information, but a little piece of what Scott calls “Mkhamathi’s special soul”.

In the video above you can see the result of that collaboration and, in three-and-a-half minutes, virtually travel to this little Wild Coast wonder. We hope that, through Scott’s photographs and the beautiful landscapes revealed in Google Earth, you will be sufficiently seduced by the cascading waterfalls, beach-trotting antelope, soaring vultures, rolling hills of grasslands, swamp forest patches and wild, pristine beaches  to go in search of ways you can experience Mkhambathi for yourself.

You might just find yourself falling in love with it.

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Find biodiversity GIS for all South Africa’s municipalities

Posted on September 6th, 2012 in Featured Conservation,General,New Content by Alta

Municipalities play a significant role in biodiversity conservation in South Africa. Not only are they tasked to provide a safe and healthy environment for their residents, they also have to manage land for development and look after threatened ecosystems and wildlife within their boundaries.

To inform these high-stake decisions, municipal authorities, as well as the interested parties they serve, need to have access to good information about biodiversity and sensitive areas in their municipal area.

Recognising how important availability to this information is, scientists from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), have put together municipal biodiversity summaries for every municipality in South Africa. The biodiversity summaries contain statistics for biodiversity features and terrestrial biodiversity summary maps, all downloadable as shapefiles, as well as a series of fact sheets about the projects.

These information pages have been available on BGIS (SANBI’s distribution catalogue for spatial biodiversity data) since 2010, and now, as of this week, this entire dataset can also be accessed on MAPA’s registry of African conservation.

Simply search for [your municipality BGIS] (e.g. [Ngqushwa BGIS])  to find the link to biodiversity information for your municipality, and click on “read more” to access the project page for that municipality.

Remember that, by clicking on the share button, you can also access a URL link to the results of any search, embed it in a webpage, or download it for viewing in Google Earth or as a PDF.

We are very excited about our developing relationship with SANBI, and hope that this will be the first of many collaborations in which MAPA can help to make relevant conservation information more visible and accessible.

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Working for Water’s Biocontrol sites now on the map

Posted on January 10th, 2012 in Featured Conservation,General,New Content by Alta

In our last newsletter, we told you that you could find all 321 Working for Water projects, as well as 150,000 of their specifically monitored clearing areas (NBALs) on our conservation map (NBAL sites are currently only available in the Google Earth version).  As we explained, each specific area bubble comprises information on how that area has been managed: the money spent on it, the person days of employment created by clearing it, the dominant alien species targeted and the total number of hectares cleared within it.

How are these areas cleared? Working for Water uses all sorts of methods to keep the aliens in check, including chemical controls (like herbicides), manual methods (like frilling and fires) and biological control, the targeting of aliens by their own natural enemies.

A big reason for the propensity of alien species to become dominant in their new habitats is the fact that they often outcompete indigenous vegetation for nutrients and water, a function of their general resistance to the effects of the local army of plant enemies (mostly insects, mites, and pathogens). Biocontrol is an attempt to remove this competitive advantage by allowing these invaders’ natural enemies to level the playing fields and let the natural vegetation catch up. Though biocontrol agents don’t normally kill their targets, biocontrol is a cost-effective,  sustainable and ecologically friendly method of alien control and an important tool in the fight against invasive plants.

In addition to their projects and clearing sites on MAPA’s conservation map, you can now also find all the places where Working for Water has released  biocontrol agents to target alien invasive plants.  Like the NBAL clearing sites, you can access this layer from the “footprint” tab in any of the Working for Water project bubbles.  Click on “view” and you’ll see all the biocontrol sites, denoted by insect icons (as shown above), appear.  To find out which agent was used and when they were released at an individual site, simply click on the icon.

We’re thrilled that our conservation map can be used to make the scope and activities of one of Africa’s largest conservation initiatives more visible and hope that you will enjoy this newest addition to that story.

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MAPA newsletter: Towards a more complete conservation map

As the southern hemisphere spring makes way for the South Easters, sweltering heat and thunderstorm skies of African summers, we look back on the last three months to find a more complete picture of African conservation slowly emerging on our map as it sprouts more and more points of conservation interest. Here is our latest newsletter.

Important Bird Areas are on the map!

Given limited resources,  conservation triage requires that we favour some areas over others in order to make sure we conserve the most important places on the planet, and as much biodiversity as possible.  However, determining where these critical areas are can be tricky and costly, and so, in the absence of perfect ecological knowledge,  biologists have to look to taxa that can be relied on to reflect  the overall biodiversity and ecological value of a particular area.

As a generally well-studied, often well-travelled, ubiquitous taxa found in nearly every habitat on earth, birds are considered to be particularly good at being such indicators.  Areas that are important to the conservation of birds are thus likely to be important to other biodiversity too, which is one of the reasons we are particularly pleased that all 1218 African Important Bird Areas can now be found on our conservation map.  Read more here.

MAPA in Africa Geographic

Africa Geographic has surely set the gold standard for relating African conservation stories to the public and this would be reason enough for us to be happy about being featured in this magazine.  However, our spread in their November edition is also significant in that it speaks to one way we hope our map will be useful to conservation, namely to connect environmental journalists with conservation and wildlife stories that need the public’s attention.

Africa Geographic has kindly made the article available to us, so you can read more about our (short) history and hopes for the future by viewing the PDF here.

Working for Water projects infest South Africa

In the 17 years that the Working for Water programme has been running, this massive effort has received international praise for its innovative approach to the eradication of invasive alien plants. The programme has provided more than 20,000 people from marginalised communities with jobs, and runs 321 projects countrywide, spanning more than 150,000 land clearing units (NBALs) totaling more than a million hectares.


All 321 of these projects, as well as the 150,000+ NBALs have now been added to MAPA’s conservation map.  Each clearing unit contains information on targeted species, money spent and jobs created for that specific area, information only available in GIS files housed at the Working for Water offices until now. Currently the clearing units are only downloadable by province, via the “footprint” tab on the Google Earth layer, but we look forward to bringing you smaller, more manageable NBALs for individual projects, as well as more Working for Water news, very soon.

Google Geo Tool workshop in Johannesburg

In an attempt to take our map to Africa’s conservation community, teach them how to get the most out of it, and equip them with more tools to visualise their efforts spatially, MAPA has put on a number of Google Geo Tool workshops this year.  Most recently, we found ourselves in Modderfontein, Johannesburg where, together with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, we hosted more than sixty conservationists from as far afield as Kampala and Bulawayo at two back-to-back three day workshops.  Read more about our jolly to Jozi in this blog post.

Sticking with the Endangered Wildlife Trust…

From it’s humble beginnings as a tiny nonprofit  ran from conservation legend Clive Walker’s garage in 1973, the EWT has grown into one of the most well-respected conservation organisations on the continent.  Today, the red and white cheetah pawprint is synonymous with on-the-ground-conservation action addressing some of Africa’s most pressing conservation issues.  There are more than 70 of these projects across Africa, and, as of last month, you can find them all on the searchable conservation map, or on our Google Earth layer.  We hope you enjoy exploring!

Special focus on Zimbabwe

To say that Zimbabwe has had a tough time politically is a little bit like saying that Nandos ads tend to elicit reaction. However, despite the challenges it faces, Zimbabwe’s conservation community is alive and well, and doing great work. In the coming few months, with the help of our friends at the Dambari Wildlife Trust and other Zimbabwean conservation organisations, one of our main focuses will be to get a comprehensive inventory of Zimbabwe’s conservation efforts up on the map. If you can help us with this task, please get in contact!

On that note, we sign off for this quarter. For more news and updates, follow us on Twitter, Facebook or on our brand new Google+ page!


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Important Bird Areas are on the map!

Posted on October 6th, 2011 in Featured Conservation,General,New Content by Alta

On our map, you’ll find a few different “categories” of conservation activities. There are the green hands that show protected areas, the orange blobs that highlight conservation blogs, and the blue Ps that denote conservation projects. And then there are critical habitats.

Critical habitats are areas like biodiversity hotspots, endemic bird areas, global200 ecoregions and Ramsar wetlands, and are represented on the map by the logo of the organisation that is chiefly responsible for defining, monitoring and sometimes implementing these areas.

Sometimes these areas span entire provinces, sometimes they’re the size of a small wetland.  Some of them overlap with protected areas, but often times, they’re entirely unprotected. Different critical habitats are defined by applying different measures of biodiversity richness and focus on different ecological aspects, but in identifying them, conservation scientists and organisations have a common goal: ensure that we protect as much as possible of our natural heritage by prioritising areas that are particularly species rich and valuable.

BirdLife International’s important bird areas programme is no different in this respect, and with more than 10, 000 sites identified worldwide, it plays a pivotal role in directing global conservation effort,  and not only those efforts focused on looking after feathered creatures.


A map showing all Africa's IBAs. Download the IBA-only map below or visit our conservation map to explore them in context.

Officially, an important bird area is an area that hold significant numbers of one or more threatened species, is one of a set of sites that together hold a suite of restricted range or biome-restricted species, or hosts exceptionally large numbers of migratory or congregatory species. When it comes to IBAs, size does matter! They need to big enough to matter, small enough to be able to be conserved in their entirety.

This is particularly important for sites that are not yet protected, and whose designation as an IBA help the conservationists who work in these areas petition their improved petition status. In Angola, for example, conservation scientists are currently petitioning the Angolan government to declare the Mount Moco IBA  a special reserve, an action that will help protect some of Angola’s last remaining Afromontane forest patches, and the rare and specialized birds that depend on them.

As of this week, you can see important bird areas on MAPA’s  searchable African conservation map, as well as on our Google Earth map. Find out where these areas are, what it is that makes them special and what bird species you can find there.  Each site links to the detailed important bird area fact sheet (like this one, for Mount Moco), where you can find out even more about specific sites.  If you would like to see a map of only IBAs,  you can download a Google layer of that here. We hope you enjoy exploring!

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Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe

Posted on September 9th, 2011 in General,MAPA expeditions,New Content by Administrator

Every week Peter Levey puts together a slideshow from our volunteers’ photos and adds them to the MAPA layer for Google Earth.

This week he put up  some images from Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe.  These photos were taken by Willem Coetsee and the Radley family.    These guys really struggled in the mud for MAPA covering the Eastern Caprivi, southern Zambia and northern Zimbabwe just before the rainy season – actually the rainy season did catch up with them…..


Download the whole MAPA layer for Google Earth here and navigate to Matusadona, or download this small file and just Matusadona National Park will open up on Google Earth.  When you expand the park bubble, remember to click on “Click here to see more detail….” to see the slideshow!


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Mining & Making Maps: MAPA winter newsletter

Spring has set in in the southern hemisphere and here at MAPA we’re suitably excited about some budding new developments.  Here is our latest newsletter:

A searchable map of conservation actions and areas in Africa

In our ongoing quest to make conservation more visible and accessible, we set ourselves the task this year to, amongst other things, make it easier to find information about protected areas and conservation projects in Africa. We also wanted to find more ways that conservation scientists and practitioners could use the MAPA project database and conservation map for their own benefit.

So it was with great excitement that we released the first version of a searchable, browser-based map to compliment our existing Google Earth layer to a small group of test users last month.  After fixing some bugs and making a few changes, we are even more excited to make a this map publically available as of today. Go to maps.mapaproject.org to start exploring!

We’ll tell you more about the map and how you can use it for your organisation or project in a separate blog post, but, in the meantime, don’t be shy to share your thoughts and suggestions.  We take these very seriously and consider each and every one!

Adding projects just got a little easier

The map of African conservation is only ever going to be as useful as the contribution from the conservation community is strong. We’ve tried to make it intuitive and easy to add a project, but we also know that a little guidance can go a long way. If you want to add your project, but you’re unsure about how to go about it, have a look at this video, and look out for more help material and tips coming your way in the coming month.

If you’ve added a few projects, and would like to have your efforts highlighted further, let us know.  We could add your organization’s efforts to featured conservation series – have a look at some of the programmes and projects highlighted so far.

Making many meaningful maps

It’s so much easier to communicate conservation challenges and efforts when one has a visual representation of the environmental context within with these take place.   Here at MAPA we’re very fond of Google’s Geo tools not only because it provides just such a visual platform, but also because it comes with really easy-to-use tools that can be used to add other layers and perspectives to that platform to guide understanding about pressing issues and activities.   Our map is one such annotation, but there are also many other ways that these tools could be utilised to make conservation more visible.

For this reason we decided to compliment what we do with the MAPA database and map with hands-on Google Geo tools workshops for conservation practitioners.   Not only do these workshops offer us an opportunity to connect and collaborate with the scientists, managers and environmentalists that look after Africa’s priceless natural heritage, but they allow us a way to help visualise conservation far beyond what we can do with our map alone. And they also happen to be quite fun.

After a fortnight of slightly experimental and (we think) successful workshops in Cape Town and Stellenbosch earlier this year, we found ourselves travelling to Arusha, Tanzania in June to run more of these trainings as a side-event to the ATBC/SCB Africa conference.   Read more about our time in Tanzania and, if you reside in the northern regions of South Africa, look out for an announcement later this month …

Google Geo tools series

In the short time that we’ve been running Google Geo tools workshops, we’ve picked up on particular topics that a lot of participants have an interest in or difficulty with, and as part of an effort to follow up with these participants, we’ve started a new (more or less) fortnightly series on our blog.

We superficially touched on using short, simple Google Earth tours in the first blog post in this series and two weeks ago wrote about using Google Earth without an internet connection in publications and presentations.  Look out for a blog post on GPS collar track data next week and more on teaching Google Earth to others in your organisation and using Fusion tables to share data sets later this quarter.  Are there any pressing topics you would like to read about? Suggest one, and we might just write about it.

More memories of our mapping missions

We’re no longer driving around Africa’s protected areas, but we do still have plenty of memories to share.  We add new albums to our Facebook page from time to time and we’ve been adding slideshows to various protected areas on our Google Earth/browser-based map, which we’ve started to highlight on our blog.

Richard Hugo getting some high-tech directions in Angola

To celebrate the end of our mapping expeditions we’ve put together a bumper slideshow of some of our volunteering adventures from across the continent.   We leave you with these memories until next quarter!


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Kafue National Park, Zambia

Posted on September 2nd, 2011 in General,MAPA expeditions,New Content by Administrator

Every week Peter Levey puts together a slideshow from our volunteers’ photos and adds them to the MAPA layer for Google Earth.

This week he put up  some images from Kafue National Park in Zambia.  These photos were taken by volunteers Andy Welch and Geoff Jones while they were travelling in the little known, southern portion of this massive park – one of the largest in Southern Africa.    We will add some images from the better known northern circuit in due course.

Andy and Geoff live in Zambia and we were lucky to have their local contacts when they ran into mechanical problems in the heart of Kafue.

Zambia is a fantastic country to travel in overland, with no shortage of really wild big game experiences.

Download the whole MAPA layer for Google Earth here and navigate to Kafue, or download this small file and just Kafue National Park will open up on Google Earth.  When you expand the park bubble, remember to click on “Click here to see more detail….” to see the slideshow!


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A searchable catalogue of conservation in Africa

Posted on August 5th, 2011 in General,Get Involved!,New Content by Alta

Back in the days when MAPA still stood for “Mapping Africa’s Protected Areas”, we simply wanted to create a place where Africa’s major national parks could be visible. So, with some help, we created a map on Google Earth were you could go and find that information, view videos for parks, read articles and blogs and learn about some of the work going on in the area. We added critical habitats, like biodiversity hotspots and endemic bird areas into the mix, and finally added projects as well, because we believed that the real conservation lies not in areas, but in actions.

That left us with a bit of a problem. There was no way we could find and maintain information on conservation actions in Africa – and it wouldn’t be the right thing to do by conservationists anyway. So right at the outset, we decided to let conservation practitioners tell their own stories and add their own projects.

Pretty soon we realised that if we were to succeed in providing a platform that conservationists used to build a library of conservation actions, we would have the opportunity to do something really special with the map.  Making conservation visible was a valuable thing to do, but what if  that information was accessible too? What if conservation practitioners could easily find what other conservation practitioners were doing, if conservation scientists could find which conservation actions, threats, targets and tools were being addressed, and where?  What if funders and journalists could find out about the people they were interested in funding and writing about, and if interested citizens could see what projects were being done in their communities?

To do get to that point, two things needed to happen: conservation projects needed proper categorisation, and the catalogue needed to become searchable.  We’ve been telling you for some time about the former (we’ll keep improving that in the coming months), but today we’re very excited to announce that a searchable browser-based map is being pre-released to a small group of test users.

The information on the map is exactly the same as that on the Google Earth layer, but, unlike the Google Earth map,   is searchable and browser-based (so you don’t need to have Google Earth installed). Another feature that we’re very excited about is the ability to download results (as a CSV file) and the ability to create custom layers using the KML generator (just like the Skeppies, African Conservation Trust and ADU layers that we published in the last month). We’ll tell you more about these features when we release the map publically.

Before we can do that, though, we need all the input we can get! Would you like to help us refine the map into a useful tool for conservation? Just click here to register – we could always use another opinion!

Whilst we’re very excited about releasing a searchable map of conservation in Africa, the tool will only ever be as good as the underlying information. The map can’t be complete without your project – if you haven’t pinned it on the map yet, why not give it a go?  It’s free, and although you can add videos, articles and kml files and various other categories of information, all you need to get it on is a paragraph and a picture.  So help build a map of conservation in Africa, and add your project today!

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South Sudan: Great migrations and huge challenges

Posted on July 11th, 2011 in General,Get Involved!,New Content by Alta

It’s not often that we get to announce new content for the  “country” category on the MAPA layer, but that’s exactly what this week’s post is about.  On Saturday, South Sudan became Africa’s 54th state, amidst hopeful celebrations and more solemn expressions of concern about the myriad of challenges now faced by this poverty-stricken, war-ravaged country.

From an environmental point of view, one key challenge the new South Sudanese government will have to address is the preservation of it’s miraculously  intact wilderness areas.   As it happens, South Sudan holds a very special place in the history of African conservation.   It was here that the proposed de-gazettement of the White Nile/Sobat game reserve first catalysed the formation  of the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (today Fauna & Flora International) in 1903. Together with other conservation organisations, this society would be instrumental in lobbying colonial governments to establish Africa’s first national parks, and many historians consider it’s formation the start of the conservation movement in Africa.

Before the first outbreak of civil war, the vast South Sudanese savannah and expansive Sudd wetland – Africa’s largest –  harboured a great diversity and abundance of large mammals, including hippo, elephant, eland, Mongalla gazelle, zebra, lion, leopard, oryx, and white-eared kob.  But could these animals survive 22 years of civil war? Biologists had little hope – early reports didn’t look promising, and other countries that suffered decadal civil wars, like Angola and Mozambique, had seen their wildlife populations decimated during these conflicts.

So it was with great delight then, that National Geographic explorer-in-residence Mike Fay, and WCS conservationist Paul Elkan, in taking to the air to do a post-war wildlife survey in 2007, re-discovered a wildlife migration spectacle to rival that of the Serengeti.  The discovery generated much excitement among the conservationists, and in the international media, but there was also no denying that some populations were indeed greatly affected by the war, and that an outbreak of peace offered just as many challenges as opportunities.

Watch the two YouTube videos below to hear Paul Elkan explain the intricacies and wonders of the migration, and some of the challenges faced looking ahead.

Here at MAPA, we’re hoping to show the South Sudanese conservation story as it unfolds, but we’ll need your help! We added a new country to our layer (download it here, if you don’t have it already) on Saturday, and from here you can explore South Sudan’s national parks, watch YouTube videos like the ones above, and read articles that tell a story of  a hidden paradise of promise and uncertainty.  However, you will also notice a great scarcity of conservation projects in the region– of course there have been few organisations active in South Sudan in the past decades, but we’re sure that there are people doing great work out there – and we’d really like to feature you.

If you’re a researcher or conservation practitioner working in South Sudan, please add your project to the map! Simply go to this page, register as a user, and start adding your information. Your project will be on the map within 48 hours of you activating it.   If you don’t have a project, but are knowledgeable about a specific area,  please have a look at the map and let us know if there is anything you would like to change, either in the “add a comment” section of the protected area bubbles, or by emailing us. We’d like to see a map that represents the conservation effort in South Sudan and we welcome any effort to help us do so!

If you’d like to see more content on South Sudan for viewing in Google Earth,  be sure to turn on the “UNEP Atlas of our changing environment” in the Global awareness gallery (as shown above) to see imagery of the Sudd wetland.  Also have a look UNEP’s South Sudan environmental database, a rich source of information on both environmental and humanitarian areas and issues of importance, or check out this blog post if you’re interested in mapping efforts in this country of few paved roads!


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