MAPA Newsletter: New Developments and Northerly Drives

In the last three months we’ve been learning more about Zimbabwean conservation, released a brand new user-interface for finding and adding conservation projects , and have started to prepare for an exciting new workshop in Cape Town.  Here is our latest newsletter:

A brand new project user-interface and search page

One of our main jobs is to build a catalogue and map of Africa’s conservation projects. How well we achieve that almost entirely depends on how many conservationists use our website to add their work, which in turn largely depends on how easy it is for them to use it.

After quite a few iterations of just-not-quite-getting it right, we were excited to announce the release of a much cleaner and simpler new user-interface in March.  But don’t take our word for it – try it out yourself! Head over to to search the database for protected areas, critical habitats, and of course, contributed conservation projects from across the continent. Then map your search in Google Earth!

Can’t find your project in the database? Add it! Simply register as a user, login, and fill in your projects’ details. As soon as you choose to make it live, others will be able to find it in the database, and see it on our Google Earth conservation map.

We hope that you’ll enjoy using this new system – as always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and criticisms!

Zimbabwe Drive

At the end of March, with the help of our friends at Africa Geographic & Tracks4Africa, we embarked on a two month mission to get Zimbabwean conservation on the map – a drive that saw us connect with over a  hundred of the country’s most prominent and dedicated conservationists. During that time, we got to learn a little more about the projects these men and women work at, which include  environmental advocacy in the Zambezi valley, the research,  conservation and welfare of large carnivores,  on-the ground logistical support for Zimbabwe’s parks authorities and sustainable development through agricultural research and public-private partnerships – to name but a few.


Many of these Zimbabwean initiatives have already been added to our conservation map, and a few more will be live soon. Look out for that, a report back on the drive, and an exciting partnership with the Green Zambezi Alliance, in the six weeks.

Our Zimbabwean education wasn’t all “distance learning”, though! At the beginning of May, we also had the opportunity to travel up to Harare to meet a small group of Zimbabwean conservationists in person for a three day workshop on how to use Google’s mapping tools in their work, and how to use MAPA’s conservation mapping tool for their own benefit. This blog post has more.

Google Map Maker & Google Map Engine at our Cape Town training

Fresh of our mapping workshop at Mapumula in May, we announced another Google Geo Workshop for June, this time in Cape Town,  at UWC’s brand new Life Science building.

What’s particularly exciting about this training is that it will introduce two tools that are only just becoming available to South Africans, and nonprofits.

Google Map Maker, the tool that allows you to add the points of interests you care about to Google Maps, was launched South Africa just over a week ago. We’re so excited that Evans Arabu from the Google Map Maker team will be joining us at this workshop to show environmentalists how to give parks, reserves, landscape features and those obscure study sites nobody has ever heard of, their rightful and correct place on the map!

Another relatively new Google Geo Tool that will feature at the workshop is Google Maps Engine, a revolutionary geospatial tool that allows organisations to manage their data in the cloud and easily make and share maps using Google Earth, Maps and Android phones. Globally, it’s already being successfully utilised by organisations like World Wildlife Fund, Eyes on the Forest and the Living Oceans Society to manage and publish critical environmental data,  and we look forward to giving our workshop participants a first glance at how this technology can be leveraged for their own organisations.
The Overberg district municipality’s wetlands & critical biodiversity areas, mapped using Google Maps Engine (data downloaded from BGIS:, copyright C.A.P.E)

That’s it for this quarter’s newsletter! We look forward to sharing more conservation stories, tools, and of course, maps, with you in the next three months!



  • Comments Off

Our latest newsletter: Zooming in on Zim

Posted on March 2nd, 2012 in General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools,Newsletters,Workshops by Alta

If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that for the last little while, we here at MAPA have had Gonarezhou on our minds. And Mana pools, Kariba dam, Victoria Falls, Matobo Hills….in fact, we’ve been getting downright zesty about Zim. We’re pleased to let you know that this affliction is only going to get worse! Don’t worry; we are still thinking about other conservation projects and places too! Here is our latest newsletter:

The Great Zimbabwe registry

Last week we officially announced the Zimbabwe drive, due to start on the 19th of March.  What is this drive exactly? Simply put, MAPA will be collaborating with Zimbabwean conservationists to build a registry and map of Zimbabwean conservation projects. We’ll also be highlighting issues of concern, organisations who work in Zimbabwe and hope to bring you many great Zimbabwean maps. Visit the drive’s website to find out more, or subscribe to the mailing list if you’d like to get weekly updates via email.

Google Geo: Zimbo style

Last year we put on a number of very popular Google Geo Tool workshops with conservationists from all over Africa. We love doing these workshops, both because we get to equip conservationists with practical skills to communicate their work, and because they allow us to get to know the people behind the work – which can lead down all sorts of exciting roads.

At our last workshop, for example, we were pleasantly surprised to meet the ladies from the Dambari Wildlife Trust, who travelled all the way down from Bulawayo to attend the training in Johannesburg. We started talking; one thing lead to another, and three months later, the Zimbabwe drive was born!

Nicky and Verity

Verity Bowman (far left) and Nicola Pegg (left) from the Dambari Wildlife Trust hard at work at the EWT workshop

It comes as no great surprise then, that our focus on Zimbabwe will include not only a Google Geo workshop or two, but a six-week long initiative where we will help you create your own Google EarthGoogle Maps and Fusion Tables mapping projects.

We’re kicking off the Google Geo part of the drive by starting small:  On the 19th and 20th of March we’ll be running a very personalised workshop in Cape Town, at the University of the Western Cape’s swanky new facilities. The workshop is for anyone in conservation or natural science who works in Zimbabwe, or with Zimbabwean data.

Although we will still teach you to use Google Earth, Maps, Fusion Tables and how to get the most out of MAPA’s conservation map (just like at our regular workshops), this workshop will be highly focused on participants’ own data. In fact, we’d like to be so focused on your work that we’re restricting the workshop to just 10 participants. There are a few spots left, so if you’re interested in attending, let us know soonest by emailing mapaworkshops[at]gmail[dot]com. We’ll follow up on a case-by-case basis.

For those of you who are worried about making it down to Cape Town from Zim – don’t worry, there is (at least) one workshop in Zimbabwe on the cards at the end of the drive, in early May. We’ll tell you more about that, as well as how you can get the most out of the Google Geo Tool initiative, in the next fortnight.

Africa Geographic and Tracs4Africa partner up with us for the Zimbabwe drive

The MAPA Project tells the world about African conservation projects and where they happen and so it seems only right that we should be teaming up with the continent’s premier conservation story-teller and master navigator.

As part of the Zimbabwe drive, Africa Geographic has kindly agreed to hand out a free 6-month digital subscription to their magazine (either Africa Geographic magazine or Africa Birds & Birding) to every organisation that adds a project. On top of that, Tracks4Africa will make sure you get a copy of their GPS maps for Zimbabwe and Zambia, and will also give away a handheld GPS to one randomly-selected participant.

You can learn more about these, and other great incentives over at the Zimbabwe drive website.  A big thank you to Africa Geographic and Tracks4Africa for your generosity!

Registering Rhino Projects

This year, MAPA will be going about populating our conservation map in a number of ways. We’ll be focusing more on countries (Zimbabwe being the current focus, obviously), but also on topics and taxa that span the continent.

As far as conservation topics go, they don’t come much hotter than the current Rhino poaching crisis, and we will be doing our bit by turning our attention to creating a near-complete registry of African Rhino projects, in the very near future.

As an appetiser, we recently put out a “first call” to Rhino conservationists and researchers. There’s much more in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

Remember that you can add your project at any time, whatever your conservation topic or country of residence! If you’re confused about how to get started, here’s a little help.

We’re not only mapping projects!

You may have noticed that we never refer to ourselves by our “full” original name anymore. Whereas we were once mapping Africa’s Protected Areas, we’ve now slightly outgrown our name. However, we do still represent protected areas and other critical habitats on our maps, and we still need your help to get it right!  To learn more about how we threw our name away and how we went about putting protected areas on the map, read our two part blog series here:[part 1][part 2].

Action-packed Autumn

We’ve got some exciting developments lined up for the next three months: We’ll be bringing you revamped project-input screens, new training materials, more Google Geo Tool workshop news, plenty of Zimbabwean conservation maps and hopefully, a more complete African conservation map!  For updates and news, follow us on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

We’ll see you at the end of May.  Until then, a big, big thank you to all our friends, supporters and collaborators. This project wouldn’t exist without you!


  • Comments Off

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!


  • Comments Off

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 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!


  • Comments Off

MAPA newsletter: sharing memories and systemising maps

Posted on June 1st, 2011 in General,Newsletters by Alta

The Southern hemisphere autumn has come and gone, and leaves weren’t the only entity drifting south.  As I write this, the mapping vehicles are on their way back to Cape Town from west Africa, bringing to an end 36 months of mapping expeditions. We’ll tell you more about that soon, but, in the meantime, here is our latest newsletter:

Sharing our adventures

Driving around Africa is, if nothing else, a great adventure. In the last two years we’ve been stuck, sick and stung, we’ve slept in the bush, in trees and hotel parking lots. We’ve spent our days with crocodiles, lions, hippos and tsetse flies. We’ve been saddened, surprised, stunned and inspired.  And along the way, we’ve collected maps, gps tracks, photographs and many special memories. Our mapping may be coming to an end, but we’ve only just begun to share our adventures.

To start out with, we’ve been, quite modestly, adding a few slideshows to some of the park bubbles on the Google Earth map, and have put up few photo albums (like the one above of Katavi National Park) on our Facebook Page. We’ll keep adding to these regularly and are also – without giving too much away – working on  a few more exciting ways to share our most memorable mapping moments.  Look out for that a bit later this year.

From Cape to (half-way to) Cairo

In March and April we hosted a few Google Geo tool workshops to get to know the South African conservation community a little bit better and impart the  knowledge we’ve been equipped with to people who could use these tools to make conservation more visible and accessible.  We had a wonderful time with the keepers of the fairest Cape and are looking  forward to meet more custodians of African conservation when we travel to Arusha, Tanzania in ten days’ time to repeat a similar exercise at the joint meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and the African section of the Society of Conservation Biology.

A time-animation of shark dorsal IDs recorded near Gansbaai, Western Cape, South Africa (data: Adrian Hewitt)

We’re looking very forward to share the efforts of these conservation practitioners with you on our map, in our blog postings and on our (very new) Facebook and Twitter pages.

A big, big thank you to Jacqueline Rajuai and Evans Arabu for travelling down from the Google Nairobi office to help run the trainings, and to Google Earth Outreach for co-sponsoring the Arusha event.

A visual classification of effort

One of the questions sir David Attenborough was asked when he recently visited Cape Town was what field of science he would encourage young people to partake in.  He answered without hesitation: taxonomy.

Now, I have to be honest: being someone who’s worked on the more charismatic end of the zoological study field spectrum, I can’t say that I ever really envied the sorters and organisers in the department.  Finding taxa’s correct place on the tree of life is not exactly filled with heart-stopping moments, at least not once the data collection is done (not counting the passionate debates that rage amongst these investigators).

Yet, we owe almost everything we know about the natural world to the classifiers:  before scientists could even begin to understand how the world works and why it works in that way, there first needed to be a large collective effort to describe and organize it to make sense  of the way it is pieced together.

When it comes to conservation effort, the way things work  (or sometimes don’t work),  isn’t always all that clear. There are huge ineffeciencies in the field as people replicate projects and work separately from similar efforts, and there’s no real way of telling whether conservation, as a collective effort, is being successful.

All over the world, this is slowly changing, with people like the Conservation registry and ConPro leading the way in cataloging conservation effort in a systematic way. This “systematic way” is, in fact, a standard set by a body called the Conservation Measures Partnership – a partnership of conservation organisations that seek better ways to design, manage, and measure the impacts of  conservation actions.

MAPA has fully embraced this standard and, as of last month, when you record your project in the database, it will be done to these specifications. Have a look for yourself, and don’t be shy to criticise!

We’re hoping that this latest effort will not only help us visualise conservation, but also organise it in a way that will make it searchable and the underlying knowledge more usable in a wider context.

On a more personal note

May was the month that we said goodbye to a much-loved and  highly-valued member of our small team.  Taking a break from her regular days of wandering with wild dogs, Kath Potgieter joined us at the beginning of 2010 to research content for the map, in particular for protected areas in west-, central- and north Africa.  Not simply content with exploring the “wild west” virtually, Kath also did (parts of) it from a place she is extremely comfortable being: behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive.  It’s a place she’ll soon be returning to when she goes back to study the predators whose conservation she is so passionate about.

Kath, we’ll miss you, are proud of you, and wish you all the best with the goals you’ve been working towards with such dogged determination!

The MAPA girls in west Africa - Kath is on the right.

And Finally

This project wouldn’t work without collective input. As always, a big thank you to all who have contributed content, comment, criticism and encouragement. Please keep contributing!


MAPA Newsletter: Time for action(s)!

Posted on January 26th, 2011 in General,Get Involved!,MAPA expeditions,Newsletters,Workshops by Alta

Since our inception, the MAPA Project has strived to make African conservation more accessible and visible. When we started we did this by physically mapping protected areas and visualizing these on a map. However, conservation is not only about areas, but about what humans do or don’t do to exploit, use and protect the wildlife and ecosystems within and around them.

We’re still driving around the African continent and mapping protected areas, but during the last year we’ve also spent a lot of time defining other vehicles for making conservation more visible and accessible. We’re just about ready to send these out into the field – and we need your help! Here is our latest newsletter.

Mapping Conservation in Africa: Why we went quiet on conservation projects

When we first started pinning African conservation to a Google Earth map our intention was simply to make conservation areas and actions more visible to the world. To do this, we created a map that showed pictures, actions, blogs, videos and articles of conservation areas and actions on Google Earth. As we kept on adding protected areas and critical habitats to the map throughout last year, we also opened the map up to the conservation community because we firmly believed (and still do!) that the information on that map would only be accurate and updated if it was contributed by people in the field.

But who is this “world” that we’ve created the map for? How would they use this information? And was adding information to our database really useful to conservation practitioners? Almost as soon as we started we were forced to take a step back to answer these questions.  Working with various organizations and individuals it soon became clear to us that our database and map could, with a little restructuring, become a much more useful tool – both to conservation practitioners and the general public.

From Bubbles to Babel

Fullscreen capture 24102009 154128

All across the world, conservation organizations are recognizing the need to share information on conservation actions so that we can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes and practice more efficient and effective conservation. That is the primary reason a partnership of organizations called the Conservation Measures Partnership came into being. One of their main roles is to standardize the way that conservation actions are categorized within project databases. The idea is simple: if we all talk the same language about what we’re doing, it becomes so much easier to share that information – and the information that matters- amongst each other.

From our perspective it seemed like a no-brainer: we were hoping to catalogue conservation actions anyway, so why not do it in a way that could make the information contained within these projects more accessible to other conservation practitioners and provide more accurate information to the general public.

We already had a place where people could go add information, we just needed to organize that a little differently and include more categories.  So for the past few months, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. Don’t worry…we’re not compromising on looks – we will still allow you to add your project to the Google Earth map with videos, articles and pictures– but we’re also hoping to turn the map into more than just a pretty face.

Adding information is, of course, only one part of the story. The other integral part is being able to access it easily. For that reason we’re also currently working on more ways for you to search & map information from our database. We know that is difficult to find specific information from the Google Earth map and so we’re also developing a website where you can mine the database and map. We’ll keep you updated on developments!

So when will this functionality be available?

We’re getting ready to introduce a prototype of this “new” version of the MAPA Project around mid-March. Although the project will be open for contributions from across Africa, we will focus our attention on getting conservation in the Western Cape, South Africa on the map.

After that, armed with knowledge and help form our various partners, we will be developing a a more sophisticated tool that we plan to introduce to the rest of Africa, region by region, but starting with the ATBC & SCB Africa conference in Arusha, Tanzania in June 2011.

During this time, we value your input and suggestions – and if you are an organization we would love to work with you to find how we can develop the project into a useful tool for you. Please get in contact!

More workshops!

There is no question that there is an increasing need for conservation practitioners to communicate with each other, the public, funders and authorities about the work they have done and the information they have collected. Google Earth & Maps are fantastic visualization platforms for this – they’re what we use!

So as part of our drive to catalogue and visualize conservation efforts in the Western Cape, we are hosting a whole plethora of workshops in Cape Town and Stellenbosch to share ways of using Google Earth and Maps as a way to view and communicate your work.

Whether you are tired of the wrong information ending up with the public courtesy of the passionately uninformed (who usually are aware of good communication tools!) or whether you simply have a project that you need to explain to your peers or funders – we can help you.

The workshops are easy, fun and free – all that we ask in return is that you pin your work to our map.  We are offering both introductory and slightly (but, only slightly – don’t worry, we’re not programmers either!) more advanced workshops focused on Google Earth tours, Mobile data collection and Google Fusion tables. Registration is now open!

We’ll also be running workshops at the ATBC & SCB Africa Conference in Arusha in June – more details on that a bit nearer to the time. In the mean time – thank you to everyone at Google Earth Outreach for your support and advice in putting these training sessions together!

Before we forget…we are still mapping protected areas!

A big part of the MAPA Project is driving around and mapping protected areas. In east and southern Africa this was relatively easy – sure…cars break, roads get wet and border posts and road blocks aren’t always manned by our continent’s finest, morally outstanding individuals.  But those weren’t impossible to deal with and there were roads to be driven, gates and infrastructure to be mapped and park management to work with.

Enter West Africa…

Where roadblocks abound like tsetse flies, civil wars can break out faster than you can say “incumbent defeat” and visas are about as difficult to obtain as the proper border posts to stamp them at are to find.  Where every protected area (that is, the ones with staff) claims to have wild dogs, although most will admit that they’ve last seen them in 1973, which is also the last time anyone has bothered to scrape a road or fix the main camp site. Yes, that cattle track in the tall grass really is that thick white line on your map. Just aim for the space where the trees are far enough apart for a vehicle to fit through.

It has – to put it mildly, proved difficult to find points and lines for west Africa’s parks, but perhaps that gives us all the more reason to be there in the first place. Despite the non-existent roads, the harsh human conditions and the high poaching and deforestation rates, these are also some of the most important areas ecologically, with some of the kindest, most hospitable and dedicated individuals trying to look after them. If there are any places in Africa that need visibility…these are them.

Read more about our expeditions to Madagascar, Nigeria, and the series of contributions from travel journalist Mark Eveleigh out of Ghana. There’s more to come soon!

Last, but not least – a big, big thank you!

During our two-year old existence we’ve had many slow starts and dry spells. Thank you to everyone who has supported the project so far by putting their projects up, volunteering as mappers, contributing corrections and photos and using the information on the layer. We appreciate it and continue to value your input!

Going “live” – our latest newsletter

Posted on September 2nd, 2010 in General,Newsletters by Alta

After five months of threatening to make a public layer available where new content (added by you) could be (almost) instantly available, we’ve finally made good on our promise.  No need to download the layer again if you’ve already done so – simply refresh the old layer in your Google Earth client to see the new data.

Speaking about progress – here’s what you can expect to see on the newest version of the map, and what we’ve been up to since March:

Countries and Protected areas added

We’ve now completed the entire African National Park network and have added more than 300 new bubbles to the map.  We’ve also included even more links to information on areas that are also important bird areas or key biodiversity areas. Although we focused on the National Parks to start of with, we’re committed to ultimately putting all Africa’s protected areas on the map.  Have we skipped an area that you have information are or think should be on the map? Please let us know!



A new way to view Polygons

In the last version of the layer, the polygons and roads for protected areas were visible upon loading the layer.  These data have now been included in the project bubble itself (see below). Clicking on “click to see more” button  will lay down the polygon and roads for that protected area and will zoom you into the points, blogs and projects for that area. Whereas we had completed mapping southern and east Africa before starting to build the later, mapping for central and west Africa has only just started. This means that for many areas we still have very incomplete road- and polygon- data. Can you help to complete the map? Or are you interested in volunteering to do of some of the mapping in these areas? Click  here to find out more…spots are rapidly being filled up.


Better Content for East and Southern Africa

We’ve edited all the content from east and southern Africa, and in some cases have replaced content completely. Thanks to contributions from third parties, we’ve been able to improve information and polygons from several protected areas, including the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve and Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

More Projects:

We’ve been holding off on putting projects up whilst we were improving our third party technology – we hope that it is now much easier to add a project to the database. Please let us know your thoughts! There are several exciting developments in store for projects…more on this later. In the mean time, have a look at the 85 projects or so that have already been added to the layer. Thank you to all who have already added content!

More “footprint” stories in Google Earth

One aspect of the layer that we are really excited about is the ability for people to tell the stories of their study sites and species and the plights they face on Google Earth. These stories include Google Earth tours, Image overlays, mini-layers and GPS tracks. We call these stories “footprints” – wherever you see the little footprint (as shown below), you can click to see a spatial story in Google Earth.

FootprintsIf you like this content, and you wonder how you can create stories like these for your project, you can get started on doing this right away!It’s easy, and Google Earth Outreach has created a series of really easy tutorials that will guide you step by step in achieving the story you wish to tell.

Google Earth/Maps Workshops

Speaking of creating content in Google Earth – on the 7th of May we held our first Google Earth/Maps training with eight conservationists (and a few other people listening in) at the University of Cape Town.  As far as possible we stuck to examples that the attendees were familiar with: their own work!

If you want to see who attended the workshop, what we got up to, and what material we created in and after the workshop, you can visit our workshop site here. You’ll find links to all the tutorials we worked through in the workshop, as well as links to many more resources from Google Earth Outreach.

We’re planning a host of workshops later this year in the Western Cape, South Africa. If you’re interested in attending these, or receiving updates about when and where these will take place, please let us know!

Collaborations across Africa and the world

We keep saying that the story of conservation in Africa is not MAPA’s story to tell – and we stand by that! Over the last few months we’ve been befriending the master story tellers – NGOs and individuals who work across the continent in African Conservation.

In addition, we recently attended the 24th ICCB in Edmonton, Canada where our goal was to introduce the project to the conservation community, and seek advice as how to we might develop it further to become useful to conservation practitioners working across Africa. We came away from the meeting encouraged that the project is addressing two pressing needs in conservation: to organize information on conservation actions and to visualize conservation effort and translate dry information to policy makers and the general public.

How do we plan to do this? We want to build a layer that enables conservation practitioners to tell the story of conservation areas and actions in Africa to the world, but also to each other. We are busy adding additional fields to our project input screens, and turning the database into a searchable resource for conservationists,  standardizing actions into categories of threats, action types, habitats, species studies, project capacity, affiliations etc. which could be used as search criteria to find conservation actions and areas.  The layer will still be the public face of these actions, and in addition to the big layer with everything on it, we’re also hoping to allow people to create their own, customized layers by turning the results of their search queries and filters into a Google Earth file.  We’ll keep you updated about these developments!

Thank you!

As always…the project is completely dependent on the involvement of Africa’s conservation community. A big that you to everyone who has pitched in so far! A special thank you to the folks from Google and Google Earth Outreach for their support and help. Please let us know your comments and suggestions…and check back for more developments on the projects regularly.

- The MAPA Project team

Our First Newsletter – what we’re up to in 2010!

Posted on February 10th, 2010 in General,Newsletters by Alta

This newsletter is dedicated to just one of the MAPA Project’s two objectives – making Africa’s Protected Areas more visible.  We are doing this by creating what we hope will be an outstanding layer on Google Earth.  We have great support from Google Earth’s Outreach team and we are collaborating with many of the biggest conservation organisations on the continent.   Our first online partner was the  world-renowned online wildlife database ARKive whose data is actually embedded in the MAPA Google Earth layer.

Our second objective is to make Africa’s Protected areas more accessible.   To do this we are creating the most comprehensive digital catalogue of Africa’s parks and reserves available, including mapping their tourist and wildlife infrastructure.  It is a massive project all on its own.  For the past 14 months, volunteers have been driving around Southern and East Africa’s game parks creating a truly unique dataset (a tough job but someone had to do it!).    It was kicked off by the Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in mid-2008 and  finished in Ethiopia just before Christmas 2009.  It has been a hectic and fabulous experience and you can read about it on this site, with more postings to come.  We’ll tell you more about our mapping plans for 2010 (Central and West Africa)  in the next newsletter.

So, back to the MAPA layer on Google Earth and making Africa’s Protected Areas more visible.   With the first version of the layer up and running, we’re working hard to improve content, make the layer more attractive and, most importantly, serve what inspired it in the first place – conservation in Africa.

Here’s a brief overview of some recent developments in the project, and a preview of what we have planned for the next few months.

Completing the map on Google Earth – Phase 2 of telling the story of Africa’s protected areas: Now that we’ve added information on 208 protected areas in Southern and East Africa to the MAPA Google Earth layer, our next challenge is to complete North, West and Central Africa. Between February and June this year we will add 317 national parks in 38 countries, to the MAPA Layer on Google Earth – many illustrated with videos, articles and tours. This will include protected areas in some of the poorest, most troubled nations on earth.  We know that the stories will be harder to find –  the Central and West-African forests, the great migrations of the Sudd, and the strange and wonderful diversity of Madagascar – but we can’t wait to write up the treasures  of Africa’s least known corners.

Kwa Falls, Nigeria (Photo: Shirza Chakera)Kwa Falls, Nigeria (Photo: Shirza Chakera)

Critical habitats – areas in need of special protection: Africa’s parks and reserves are an invaluable resource, but they don’t always protect the best bits – especially high biodiversity or endemism.    Several conservation organisations specialise in identifying these areas of great conservation concern,  regardless of whether or not they are formally protected.

Each organisation has its own criteria and naming convention –  Biodiversity Hotspots, Ramsar Sites, Important Bird Area, Landscapes, Heartlands, Biosphere Reserves.   All of these “critical habitats” have been identified for a good reason, using good science, and we are keen to plot them on the map of Africa alongside the formal parks and reserves.   In the next version of the layer we hope to have some of Conservation International’s Biodiversity Hotspots, Birdlife International’s Endemic Bird Areas and Ramsar’s Wetlands of International Importance.

Angola Cave Chat, Tundavale Important Bird Area (Photo: Rob Simmons)

Angola Cave Chat, Tundavale Important Bird Area (Photo: Rob Simmons)

Research Projects and Google Earth: A part of the project that we are extremely excited about, is plotting conservation research projects on the map.  Projects and actions not only form an important part of the story that we’re trying to tell, but they also fit in squarely with the ultimate aim of the MAPA Project: to support conservation in Africa.

You can post your own project on to the MAPA layer on Google Earth.   You can put in all your sponsors, add links to your website and reserach findings, post video, satellite tracks, and all sorts of other things.  It’s free and, now that we have ironed out the wrinkles, it’s easy too.  For information on how to do this, click here.

Niassa Carnivore Project (Photo: Colleen Begg)

Niassa Carnivore Project (Photo: Colleen Begg)

Research Projects Database:  Our aim is not only to publicise research work on Google Earth but also to let people search our website for different research projects.   Imagine if you could quickly find all the  carnivore research projects currently working in Botswana, or all research projects sponsored by Conservation international?

This is our first effort to produce a useful tool for conservation beyond our original GIS work.

To do this, we need to capture more than just text and photos for research projects.  We are currently trying to define the fields that we should include in Research Project records.  It’ll only really fly if we can get researchers to put their projects up – and the carrot for that is an opportunity for really good quality exposure for projects and their sponsors.  Then we can use the database as a resource for researchers in its own right.  Perhaps a networking tool.  Perhaps a way of getting a snapshot assessment of conservation actions in Africa.   We have the database built anyway, it seems like a great opportunity to use it more widely.  More information on this soon and all input welcomed!

Making third party access easier: The MAPA project layer was always designed to belong to the conservation community, and we know we need to make it easy for everyone to take part.  One of our earliest steps was to design our database to allow easy third party access, and to design user-friendly input screens, with preview functions.   Most of these facilities are now functional and we are really keen for conservationists – especially researchers – to start using them.  So far about 50 projects have been posted up, plus a number of Blogs.   We have re-organized the input screens so adding your own information is easier, and you can now preview what your KML will eventually look like whilst adding your information.


Improving the quality of the layer: If you look carefully on the MAPA layer, you will notice a tab called ‘footprints’ on some of the Research Projects on the layer. Footprints are spatial data such as satellite collar tracks, animal distributions and vegetation classifications.

Thanks to their inherently spatial nature, these tracks and distributions tell the story of projects or actions particularly well on Google Earth. However, without some guidance as to what these lines and polygons are, they can be difficult to interpret.  So, infused with knowledge from our Google Outreach training in Uganda and Kenya at the end of last year,  we’re slowly developing a series of tours to illustrate the stories of parks and projects.  For real inspiration we only have to look at the work being done by Save the Elephants.

We hope to have our first series of tours ready in the next month, and will keep developing and adding tours throughout the year.  When they are done well, they are incredibly powerful and attract a lot of attention.  They aren’t difficult to create (though they do take time to do well!).  If you’re a research project or conservation action, we hope that these tours will encourage you to create your own which can be embedded in your website and included on your MAPA layer information bubble.

The good news is that you don’t need to wait for us! There are many great tours on display in the Google Earth Outreach showcase (we like the climate change tours), and step-by-step instruction to help you create your own. Please feel free to include your tour as part of your project story – simply upload your KMZ-file as a ‘footprint’ and associate it with your project. As we get better at creating tours, we’ll be sharing our experiences, tips and some resources on our blog and later on our website, but if you have any  tips,  we’d love to learn from you too!   In the meantime, check out some of the tracks and distributions already on the layer to get a feel for this exciting feature. Here is an example from Rolling back the desert: the Spekboom solution (find it under projects).


Quality, Quality,  Quality: We feel very strongly that, although friendly and populist, the MAPA layer on Google Earth should only showcase credible, good quality information.  For research projects and blogs we leave the quality entirely up to the project leader, but for the protected areas and critical habitats we have to work a little harder.   At the end of last year we did an in-house quality check of the layer content, and we’ll continue to address the results of that in the first few months of this year.  In addition we have appointed a dedicated in-house editor – Peter Levey –  to proof-read and edit all new content.

We are a very small team and whether we want it or not (and we do want it!) large volumes of data are now being offered up to the MAPA layer on Google Earth.  We use volunteers in the field to map for us and we are looking for volunteers behind desks to “own” Protected Areas and Critical Habitats.  If you are familiar with any small corner of Africa, and can help us tell its story better than we can, please let us know.  This might mean that you are a tour guide working in and around Kafue National Park, or a ranger in the Timbavati, and you aren’t all that impressed with the images and content that illustrates ‘your’ patch on the layer.  Please help us get it right!   All that matters is for the information to be as good as possible.

Please get in touch if you can help here.

Our Website and Blog: It has not escaped our attention that this website is in serious need of attention!

We are planning a brand new website that we hope will be a one-stop conservation shop. This will be the home of all the mapping data, you’ll be able to search for all the information that is included on the layer (and a lot more), and we will hopefully serve up our research project network tool from here too.  This will, however, take some time, and in the interim we will manage this site as a website/blog hybrid.  You’ll see many changes over the next two weeks, and can expect regular updates about what we’re getting up.

Thank You! This project cannot run without the help of the conservation community and the general public.  MAPA started as a simple effort to map some parks (OK, not that simple…) .  It is now building an online presentation (on Google Earth) that will illustrate the incredible breadth of work that conservationists are tackling in Africa.  We hope that within a year  this will be the first place that people turn to when they want to see what a park looks like, where the highest endemism is on the continent, which precious habitats  still fall outside of formally protected areas, and what conservation actions are being taken to protect these habitats and the species within them.

To everyone who has contributed data, corrections, suggestions, content, pictures, technical help, moral support and encouragement: a big thank you!

The MAPA team