Featured Conservation Series: Digital Biodiversity week at the Animal Demography Unit

Posted on July 28th, 2011 in Featured Conservation,General,Get Involved! by Alta

This week, we’re featuring the projects of the Animal Demography Unit in our “featured conservation” series. In South Africa, and internationally, the ADU is synonymous with citizen science. These days, citizen science projects are taking off all over the place, facilitated by a suite of new technology that makes it so much easier for amateur naturalists to participate en masse to help scientists understand the world around us. But twenty years ago, when the ADU first started collecting data using this approach, it was truly pioneering. This year, the ADU is celebrating their 20th birthday, and as part of the celebrations they are hosting two Digital Biodiversity weeks – this week being the first of those.  Prof. Les Underhill, director of the ADU, explains what digital biodiversity week is – and how you can get involved:

“We have a chain of events lined up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ADU this year. One of our main focuses is a celebration of the participation and involvement of citizen scientists in building our digital biodiversity databases, totalling some 15 million records. The objective of our “digital biodiversity week” is to give all our citizen scientists a chance to become a community with the objective of collecting and submitting as much biodiversity data as we are able during the week. The winter biodiversity week runs from Saturday 23 July to Sunday 31 July, so it includes two weekends. There will be another in early summer, which will span the actual date of the 20th anniversary. The dates for the summer digital biodiversity week are 29 October to 6 November.

We want to try to involve as many of our existing citizen scientists as possible. We want to recruit new people to our citizen science team. We want to collect as much biodiversity data as possible: so we will try to count the total number of records entering the various databases, and try to determine the total number of different species we record. We want to encourage Team Citizen Science.

We would be delighted if our citizen scientists participated in more than one project, and especially if they participated in one they had not been involved in before. So we want our bird atlasers to participate in VIMMA, the Virtual Museum for Mammals, our bird ringers to take pictures of weavers’ nests for PHOWN, PHOtos of Weaver Nests, and our CAR counters to give bird atlasing a try, etc. We particularly want to grow awareness and participation in the growing family of virtual museums.

This is also a great opportunity to try to expand the citizen science team. The best way to do this is to invite someone new to join you atlasing, ringing, counting, virtual museuming, and to show them the project protocols – for example, exactly how to go about bird atlasing.

Ultimately, the goal of all the data collection is to have impact on biodiversity conservation. The wealth of data and information contributed by our citizen scientists, collated and curated at the ADU, and analysed by our students and staff and by many other people, has improved biodiversity conservation in southern Africa. Our 20-year celebrations honour you, the citizen scientist. Thank you for your on-going support from all of us at the ADU. Together we are making a difference!”

For more about the ADU, and how you can get involved, search their virtual museums, or view some of their many great maps, visit their website. You can also download their projects for viewing in Google Earth.

Click here to see the ADU’s Projects in Google Earth!


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Thoughts on our Tanzanian trainings

Posted on July 24th, 2011 in General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

Conservation Science is not a simple discipline.  Conservation Projects usually involve a great diversity of stakeholders and require multi-disciplinary collaboration if they have any chance of effectively addressing conservation targets.  A key factor in such a complex environment is the ability to communicate ideas, issues, data and solutions between these stakeholders and collaborators.  It’s lucky, then, that visualising this information needn’t be a complicated affair at all – provided you have the right tools!

Equipping conservation biologists with some of these tools was the biggest reason we were out in Arusha, Tanzania, a little over a month ago, attending the joint meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Africa section and the Association of Tropical Biology.

Our aim was to introduce these scientists and conservation practitioners to the MAPA Project, and, whilst we were at it, teach them how to use the Google Geo tools that have served us so well to highlight important issues and datasets in their own projects.

During the conference, we hosted several lunch-time demonstration sessions.  In these, we introduced participants to the different Google Geo tools on offer,  the basics of making maps with Google Earth, talked about visualising GPS, GIS and tabular data in Google Earth and Fusion Tables, and introduced them to Google Map Maker. In the afternoons, we answered questions and brain-stormed specific problems and applications with some of the participants.

Participants from the Jane Goodall Institute work through an exercise in the two-day practical workshop.

The real fun started after the conference though, as we hosted about twenty (mostly Tanzanian) conservation practitioners for two days of hands-on training at the Mount Meru hotel. We used most of the first day to get familiar with Google Earth, before delving into topics such as Google Map Maker, Narrated toursGIS &GPS data,  Fusion Tables and  Open Data Kit on a busy second day.  All too soon it was time to say goodbye.

We went to Arusha to teach conservation biologists about visualising information on a map (ours, or their own, or both), but, in truth, we were probably the ones who came away with the learning experience!

We’d like to keep learning and teaching, and in the spirit of making African conservation more visible and accessible, will be writing up a few posts with real-world examples of how you can use Google mapping technology in your day-to-day work – and how you can add this into your MAPA Project bubble, of course (where appropriate).

We’re planning to run a post every fortnight, and have a few planned based on some of the feedback we received from this and previous workshops.  However, we’d like to make sure that we write about the topics that you’re interested in – so we’ll need you to tell us what you would like to hear about! You can let us know by submitting your topic using this short form. We’ll choose a selection of suggestions for the series.

In the meantime, here are the posts that we already have on the cards (one has already been posted):

  1. Tanzanian tracks & tours. In this blog post we looked very briefly at how you can use narrated Google Earth tours to guide the way your audience engage with your story. Read it here.
  2. Google Earth unplugged:  using material you’ve created in Google Earth offline and in presentations.
  3. GPS collar data and GPS tracks: mapping and animating tabular collar data and GPS tracks in Google Earth.
  4. Using Fusion Tables to host your data online and how to share this with colleagues and collaborators.
  5. Mapping it forward: Teaching your colleagues and students how to use Google mapping tools.

If you’re a bit nervous of diving into mapping and visualising your information using the Google Geo tools, we suggest that you start out by reading these two blog posts (part 1, part 2) by Google Earth Outreach.  We’ll keep you updated about training opportunities on this blog, and on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, but if you’re keen to get started, there is great material to guide you step by step along the way on the Google Earth Outreach tutorial page. There is no need to wait for us!

As for Arusha – we were absolutely overwhelmed by the friendly reception we received – thank you to everyone who made us feel so welcome. We’re also hugely indebted, as always, to Google – a big, big thank you to Google Earth Outreach for making this outing possible by co-sponsoring the workshops and to Jacqueline Rajuai from the Google Kenya office who hopped across the border to help run the sessions.  Asante Sana!

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African Conservation Trust: Conservation, Education, Innovation

Posted on July 22nd, 2011 in Featured Conservation,General by Alta

A couple of weeks ago, we told you about the Skeppies Small Grants programme.  In this next instalment of our featured conservation programmes and organisations, we have a look at some of the work done by the African Conservation Trust.  Here, in their words, is a little bit about who they are and the work that they’re involved in:

“From rehabilitating mountain  rivers and  reducing soil erosion to creating the first  digital archive of Drakensberg San Rock Art;  From using state-of-the art technology to create 3D maps of national  buildings and monuments to planting 20,000 indigenous trees and pioneering  indigenous  biofuel  projects  in rural communities; From  protecting indigenous butterflies & their endangered forest  habitats through community conservation programmes  to implementing  large scale water  conservation and  food security projects for thousands of children; And initiating the first  district-wide waste recycling project in the KZN Midlands, – ACT’s footprint is large – and growing.

Educating kids about the value of recycling is part of the ACT's Waste Recycling & Education Project

In all our projects we work closely with benefiting communities, providing employment and education opportunities, as well as collaborating with expert partners such as the  University of KZN, AMAFA (Heritage, KwaZuluNatal), Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, WESSA and the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

Currently, ACT is implementing a range of large-scale, multi-million Rand conservation, environmental and heritage projects, with  every project having  as a key output, the involvement of community members,  localized NGOs/CBOs and major partners.   Each project incorporates innovation, education, training and job creation as part of a focus on  sustainably alleviating critical issues. “

To learn more about these projects, ranging from conserving indigenous butterflies, to mapping rock art, to biofuel and Food security, visit the African Conservation Trusts’ website and see how you can become involved in some of the really cool initiatives they have on the go.

You can also have a look at their projects in Google Earth, by downloading the file below. If you don’t have Google Earth installed, you can download it for free here.  If you would like to see your projects displayed like this in Google Earth, upload your project to the MAPA map of African conservation here.

View ACT projects in Google Earth







End of the volunteer mapping adventure….

Posted on July 19th, 2011 in General,MAPA expeditions by Administrator

Many of you will know that MAPA started with a volunteer programme, sending teams out with Garmin GPS units to map parks and reserves across Africa. Having driven through southern, east, west and bits of central Africa over the last two and half years, we have finally closed the programme.

We really struggled in west Africa this year with weather and politics making our routing almost impossible to get right and sadly we had to cancel some volunteer trips. We got the data but it wasn’t easy and there wasn’t as much to map as we had hoped. To cap it all, by the time the last two cars in the field had reached northern Senegal, north Africa was too unstable to go any further. We will tackle it again at some stage.

The important thing is that everyone got home safely and the maps of African conservation areas keep getting better. I am enormously grateful to everyone who went out for us – none of the trips was easy and some where downright tricky.

So, this is a big thank you to everyone who took part. It has been very exciting – lots of laughs and a few tears. One marriage in Vic Falls, a brush with disaster in Malawi, lots of malaria, a little snake bite, plenty of beer and tons of photos. I have been hunting through for pics of all of you and I am sure that I am missing some – if you aren’t in here somewhere please send me a mugshot or two and I will add them!

MAPA has been using two Land Cruisers for the last year and they recently arrived home at Cape Town harbour, a month after leaving Dakar, Senegal – very battered but still running. They are both in hospital at the moment – JB’s Autos for normal mechanical work and Burnco for engineering. They should live to fight another day.

As you can see from our other posts, MAPA does much more than mapping on the ground but this was how we started and hopefully the maps will help plenty of other people travel overland to new destinations. All the data we collected has been added to the excellent GPS and paper maps produce by Tracks4Africa.

So, who has any idea how we can get the north African data any time soon……?!


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!


Skeppies: Funding community-based business for conservation

Posted on July 5th, 2011 in Featured Conservation,General,Get Involved!,New Content by Alta

This blog post is the first in a new series that we will run to highlight some conservation efforts in Africa and some of the content on the MAPA layer. This week we focus on Skeppies, the Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme (SKEP) community conservation and development and small grants fund operting in the Northern Cape.  Amanda Bourne, of the Climate Action Partnership, explains more about what Skeppies is, and what it hopes to achieve:

The Skeppies fund provides accessible small scale funding and support to projects in the Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot with combined socio-economic development and conservation outcomes. The Skeppies projects are small conservation based businesses and community conservation projects and funding supports business skills development, marketing, and building resilience to climate change.

The Port Nolloth Bird Park is one of the initiatives supported in the Skeppies small grants programme.

During its pilot phase in 2007, Skeppies supported 13 projects representing a total of 22 new businesses and providing direct benefits to 109 local people. Since then, Skeppies projects have continued to generate significant numbers of new jobs, raise environmental awareness, and achieve remarkable conservation delivery including the conservation of 5230 hectares of land, the better management of a further 41 461 hectare, and the protection of 236 red-listed plant species. Projects currently supported by the fund include traditional catering businesses, hiking trails, land rehabilitation efforts, environmental education, species protection, and sustainable livestock management.

Ouma Hannah's kookskerm is another community-based business supported through the Skeppies programme.

Since 2009, CitiGroup has provided funding for a selection of Skeppies projects to engage in a business development and mentoring programme aimed centrally at building resilience to climate variability and change. The Succulent Karoo is likely to be hard hit by climate change, experiencing an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts and floods and a projected surface temperature increase of at least 2 degrees.

Conservation South Africa and the Skeppies project development team are currently working with ten selected projects, all of which have been trained in environmental business development and climate change through a series of workshops and site visits and have been monitoring weather patterns, rainfall, and temperature using specially developed climate diaries since March 2010.

To learn more about the Skeppies projects, download the layer file below to see them in Google Earth, or visit the Climate Action Partnership’s website.

View the Skeppies Projects in Google Earth