A young man sweats in the African sun, his eyes scanning the dirt for signs of the greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) he’s been following for miles. He comes from a long family history of trackers, and, like them, he cannot read or write.
Soon he spies a fresh hoofprint. Before continuing his search, the man pulls a high-tech tool out of his bag and enters the hoofprint’s location. In a matter of seconds, the data travels to an orbiting satellite, and connects the tracker with researchers and communities all over the world.
A Threatened Tradition
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the San people in southern Africa is thought to be one of the oldest traditions in the world. The San, or “Bushmen” as they are often known, are especially famous for their extraordinary ability to track prey.
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Despite its history, this tracking tradition is disappearing fast in San communities; the indigenous group has lost almost all of their land since colonialism, and today their traditional hunting techniques are outlawed in most places, providing little incentive for young San to learn a seemingly useless skill. Community poverty rates are high and unemployment is rampant; only a few “master trackers” remain.
San traditional lifestyles have also been threatened by the disappearance of wildlife. In Botswana, fence construction, habitat fragmentation due to ranching, increasing livestock numbers and human settlement have caused a rapid decline in populations of springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), and other species since the 1970s. These species still reside in the region’s two protected areas—the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park—but almost all migration between the parks has ceased.
CI has been the main proponent of the movement to create the Western Kgalagadi Conservation Corridor (WKCC), a formally recognized territory that will link the two parks and ensure safe migration between them.
CI is the implementing agent on the four-year project, which is co-funded by France’s Fonds Francais pour L’Environnement Mondial, the government of Botswana and a private donor.
As part of the corridor proposal, local scientists and San trackers will use a new tool called CyberTracker to map the region’s plant and wildlife distribution and movement. They plan to use the results to encourage the government and other stakeholders to create the corridor.
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CyberTracker was invented by tracking expert Louis Liebenberg, who got the idea while on a hunt with the San. As a hunter’s eyes scan the area for tracks, droppings, spores and other signs of animal and plant life, CyberTracker collects this information and, over time, creates a dynamic visual map of the area’s ecosystem and land-use patterns.
Although the resulting data is complex, using CyberTracker is simple. A satellite-linked global positioning system (GPS) tracks the user’s location as he or she inputs data. The tool is icon-based, making it as easy to use for illiterate trackers as it is for tech-savvy scientists. The icons are regionally customized to ensure that they accurately reflect the local environment.
By training San in the use of CyberTracker, not only does the WKCC project provide a rare opportunity for employment, it allows a cultural tradition to continue and remain a valuable skill for the future. The tool can help indigenous groups become more engaged in policy discussions, as their traditional knowledge combines with technology to make a more valuable contribution to the conservation movement than either factor on its own.
Other regional opportunities for San trained in the use of CyberTracker are being investigated; possibilities include employment by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, monitoring other species like the Endangered African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) or taking tourists on guided nature walks.
Over time, it is expected that the data collected by CyberTracker users around the world will show the effects of climate change, species protection and other factors, drawing global connections between projects and regions that would otherwise never be linked.
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