Tracking wild animals will never be the same thanks to new technology. Louis Liebenberg went to great lengths to develop and test a device to track critters on the run. Glenn Zorpette of Spectrum Magazine reports from South Africa.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Of the thousands of people who started software companies in the go-go decade of the 1990’s, Louis Liebenberg’s path was among the most circuitous and treacherous. It started in the Kalahari bush where Mr. Liebenberg was charged by a rhinoceros and stalked by a lion. He even survived the dot-com implosion with his software company intact. Reporter Glenn Zorpette traveled to South Africa and brought back this story about what can happen when the cyber world meets the wild world.
ZORPETTE: In rumpled khakis and hiking boots, with binoculars and a lion’s tooth hanging around his neck, Louis Liebenberg could be any eco-tourist. But this grizzled white-bearded engineer claims distinction as having made perhaps the greatest contribution to animal tracking ever. His company, cyber tracker software of Cape Town, South Africa, offers a hand-held computer program that simplifies and automates the task of monitoring wildlife. Available for free, it has been a huge hit with wildlife officials, conservationists, zoologists, field biologists, animal trackers and anti-poaching officers who’ve been downloading the software at a rate of nearly 2,000 copies a month.
The beauty of the program lies in its user interface, which Liebenberg says, was conceived for Bushmen who don’t read or write.
LIEBENGERG: I was hunting with a Bushman who, as they go on a day hunt, they scan the area and they collect information on the movement of animals based on their tracks and signs. So, they effectively bowled up a picture of what is happening in the entire area. And then in the evenings they will discuss that and strategize and decide where to go the next day. So I sort of figured if you could somehow capture that information, it could be of incredible value to research and to conservation.
ZORPETTE: To record an animal sighting the user simply chooses from a menu of pictograms- impalas, plain zebra, African elephants- and then taps the screen the appropriate number of times. Five taps, five animals. The user can even record animal tracks through a menu of footprint pictograms. The hand-helds are all equipped with GPS cards so the location and time of the sighting is added to the record automatically. All the data can later be transferred to a color-coded map that offers an immediate and compelling view of where animals are roaming, congregating, eating and sleeping.
Liebenberg says there are about 50 ongoing cyber tracker projects in Africa alone. And they’ve had some dramatic results.
LIEBENBERG: I think one of the biggest breakthroughs with that was in the Congo. A project involved getting a huge amount of data on guerillas, forest elephants, the antelope, the plants, the forest itself. And with the outbreak of Ebola, for the first time they could actually see the extent of the impact of Ebola on guerillas. And not only that, you could clearly just see that there’s an area where the guerillas were present before the outbreak and where the guerillas were completely gone, they were completely wiped out.
ZORPETTE: Liebenberg’s inspiration for cyber tracker came from a course he took on the philosophy of science. He became seized with a vague but deep conviction that the answers to some of the fundamental questions about the origins of science were to be found in the ancient practice of animal tracking. He resolved to write a book on tracking and to do it properly. He would go and live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari of Botswana and Namibia, learning how to track and hunt from them.
Liebenberg spent 10 years tracking and hunting with Bushmen. By the mid 1990’s he resolved to find a way to help non-trained people do something like what a tracker does and at the same time to empower trackers to really come into their own.
LIEBENBERG: I first conceived of a form of computerized tracking I think way back in 1990. That’s even before hand-held computers existed and even before I knew about GPS.
ZORPETTE: Cyber tracker first caught the attention of European Union officials who gave Liebenberg a grant of 2 million euros. That money still provides for 80 percent of cyber tracker’s operating expenses. The rest comes from modest grants from Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund. But with his EU funding set to run out later this year Liebenberg is grappling with the future of cyber tracker. He figures he may have to find a new benefactor, or start charging customers for downloads. But he hesitates to do that for fear of diminishing valuable user feed back. Worst case, Liebenberg figures he goes back to tracking, tour guiding, and evaluating trackers and reemerges from the jungle when his cyber tracker user base gets big enough for the business to be self-sustaining.
LIEBENBERG: I think even long after the research value has diminished to a point where it no longer pays to go there, I’ll probably still continue to go there just to socialize with the Bushmen and just to enjoy that sort of solitude and remoteness of the wilderness.
ZORPETTE: Of course, the jungle offers the company of animals and Liebenberg will know precisely where they are. For Living On Earth, I’m Glenn Zorpette.
CURWOOD: Glenn Zorpette is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of Eye-Triple E Spectrum magazine. To find out more about cyber tracker Louis Liebenberg visit our website, Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot O-R-G.
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