Citizen science

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SFR7_LexHes_Children_ipadSafari for Real guide and author Lex Hes asks whether modern technology detracts from a safari… or enhances it?

Traditional wildlife safaris are interesting, exciting, inspiring, romantic and provocative. Even when there is ‘nothing’ to be seen, there is always something to learn about. With the number of safari lodges growing every year and more and more tourists and guides heading into the wilderness on a daily basis, there is an incredible opportunity to gather data on our wildlife, using the skills and knowledge of the local guides as well as the tourists who travel with them.

Most tourists go on safari to ‘get away from it all’, and often this means going back to basics, with some safari camps not even having electricity, allowing guests to truly enjoy a ‘back to the wild’ feel. On the other hand there are also super luxurious lodges that supply everything from superb cordon bleu meals to his and hers bathrooms and everything in between.

The advent of modern technology has opened up a debate in safari circles. Modern technology has brought with it access to wi-fi, amazing digital cameras, drones that can be sent into the air to get unusual perspectives, smartphones with all manner of apps and so on. Should we allow guests to have access to wi-fi? Can guests bring drones along on safari and use them to fly around above the animals that we are watching?

Some of these things have a negative effect on the safari experience, but there are many positive aspects to the arrival of this modern technology, especially the amazing array of applications that we can use on our smartphones. We no longer need to carry the massive weight of books on the subject matter that interests us, because most of these are now available on our smartphones. We can use astronomy apps to learn about the night sky and we can learn to identify frog calls.

Apps like Birdlasser allow ordinary people with extraordinary technology to instantly map out the positions of all the bird species that they see in any place in southern Africa, and this data can be sent off to the scientists at universities around the world in an instant.

I recently had an exciting time using a camera trap to gather data on a seldom-seen mammal: the aardvark. I was on safari in the northern Sabi Sands, together with a South African family, when we discovered what looked like a recently-utilised aardvark burrow. We set up a camera trap at the burrow entrance and set it to take a photograph every second that there was movement in front of the camera.

This was an exciting learning experience for us, but especially for the young children in the family. When we returned two days later we retrieved the photos and were able to get a really good idea of the activity of the aardvark as it came to the burrow, dug around a bit and even went to sleep a couple of times.

This is a great example of how citizens can not only have fun learning about the mysteries of the wild, but also make a contribution to our scientific knowledge.

Lex Hes is a renowned photographer, author, naturalist and guide, and is a director-guide of Safari for Real www.safariforreal.com Images copyright Lex Hes

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