Hi-tech protection

2014-03-06 00:00

Conservation software delivers huge breakthroughs

KWAZULU-NATAL’S conservation arm, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, has announced a series of breakthroughs in the art of identifying and communicating vital conservation information from its game reserves and protected areas.

Innovations in the data-gathering systems of the familiar Cybertracker patrol-monitoring software are now claimed to offer a new tool in monitoring black rhino and other priority species, as well as helping combat poaching.

Wildlife data specialist (rhino) Carmen van Tichelen said the breakthrough came with the installation of a new system into the hand-held monitoring devices (Trimbles) carried by field rangers on patrol. At the press of a button, the information is now captured, downloaded and codified instantly.

“The enhanced scope of the data (biological as well as wildlife crime), its accuracy and the ease with which it can now be recorded, is genuinely ground-breaking. What’s more impressive is how quickly data can be downloaded, sorted and supplied to management. It has serious implications for conservation management throughout southern Africa,” she said.

Integral to this expanded capacity has been the writing of a novel “reporter” software system that automatically reviews the data, verifies it and instantly generates various reports.

The results are already being felt, with Ezemvelo gaining novel and comprehensive insights into wildlife numbers and their patterns of behaviour, which hold potentially dramatic consequences for combating poaching, for example.

To date, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has invested some R5 million on purchasing and supporting 200 Trimbles that are currently being used in all 13 of Ezemvelo’s rhino reserves.

The Cybertracker software, originally developed in South Africa by Louis Liebenberg, was provided to enable illiterate trackers to record wildlife data on hand-held computers. But the sequences needed to be enhanced.

Information systems developer Rose Hamilton began the process by installing visual icons of all the animals and plants in specific reserves. With the subsequent display of all data in Zulu, the Trimbles now guarantee the management of detailed recordings with minimal human error.

Ezemvelo park ecologist (HiP) Dave Druce said the Cybertracker system also automatically documents the position of a patrol’s whereabouts every three minutes: “We now have infallible spatial data of both the areas covered on patrols and the location of priority wildlife species, such as rhino, elephant, wild dog, lions and the like,” he said.

Management can also play out instant maps gained from this data that visualise anything from animal locations, removals and mortalities, to poaching incidents and patrol routes, etc.

These benefits have translated into cost-saving measures. Recently, it took Ezemvelo’s Game Capture unit only four hours to dart 18 black rhino for notching purposes: “Previously, it would have taken two days. The savings, both financial and human, are significant,” said head of Game Capture Jeff Cooke.

The benefits of the customised Cybertracker and “reporter” software were hailed by the organisation’s section rangers, the first people who receive field-ranger information and have to forward it to management.

Dennis Kelly, the section ranger for the Nqumeni area in HiP, called the developments a “time warp” in conservation management.

“It has genuinely changed our lives. It previously took me all of two days to simply download information I received from my field rangers. Some of this had mistakes that took me even longer to identify. Now it takes me an hour.”

The same applies to fulfilling his field-ranger work-performance reports: “I don’t need to second-guess where they have been or what they have seen. It’s there; clear and conclusive”.

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