Observer Reliability

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From its origins in the Kalahari, CyberTracker has now found its way into conservation projects worldwide. Most users simply use CyberTracker to record data. But the art of tracking also represents the most sophisticated and refined form of human observation. A fleeting glimpse of a small bird disappearing into a thick bush is closer to a sign of a bird than a clear sighting. A distant sighting of a whale in rough seas can be just as difficult to identify as an indistinct track. A dried out twig, with no flowers or green leaves, can make identification of a plant as difficult as identifying the faintest sign in the sand.

Whether looking at birds, butterflies, plants, whales, tracks or signs, human observations can be infinitely complex. The master trackers of the Kalahari can inspire the development of increasingly refined observation skills.

Tracker Evaluations and Observer Reliability

Over the last twenty years traditional tracking skills in southern Africa have been lost at an alarming rate. The older generation of traditional trackers has grown old without ever receiving any recognition for what they can do. Over the last fifteen years some of the best trackers have passed away, their knowledge and skills irretrievably lost. Meanwhile, the younger generation had no incentive to become expert trackers. Among hunter-gathers, the bow-and-arrow and persistence hunting have been abandoned as the use of dogs and horses were introduced. This has resulted in a decline in tracking skills, since the dogs are used to do the tracking.

To revitalize the art of tracking it should be recognised as a specialised profession. Trackers can play an important role in research, monitoring, ecotourism, anti-poaching and crime prevention in nature reserves and national parks. Creating employment opportunities for trackers provides economic benefits to local communities. The employment of trackers will also help to retain traditional skills that may otherwise be lost in the near future.

In order to develop the art of tracking as a modern profession very high standards need to be maintained. In national parks and in the eco-tourism industry there has been an increasing need to verify the abilities of rangers and trackers. Rangers are used to gather data for monitoring wildlife and it is important to validate that the data they gather is accurate. Tracker certificates help to validate data collected by trackers by providing an objective test of observer reliability. Trackers are graded in order to determine their level of expertise, so that they can be promoted according to different salary scales. This provides an incentive for trackers to develop their skills.

The CyberTracker tracker evaluation covers the fundamental principles of tracking as well as the finer details and sophisticated aspects of tracking. This is done on an individual basis, depending on the level of each candidate. The evaluation is in the form of a practical field test. Rather than pointing out details, each individual is first asked to give his or her own interpretation. Mistakes are corrected and explained continuously throughout the duration of the evaluation. This process identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate in order to develop the potential of each individual in accordance to his or her level of skill.

The apprentice tracker is given a percentage obtained for the evaluation. The progress a tracker makes will depend to a large extent on his or her incentive to practice on an ongoing basis. Someone who is not able to develop his or her own skills will never become an expert tracker. The evaluation is therefore intended to teach trackers how to develop their own skills. The CyberTracker tracker evaluation system has also proved to be a very efficient training tool (Wharton, 2006).

Wildlife research often relies upon skilled observers to collect accurate field data (Wilson and Delahay, 2001). However, when the skill level of the observers is unknown, the accuracy of collected data is questionable (Anderson, 2001). Observer reliability is an important issue to address in wildlife research, yet it has often been overlooked or assumed to be high (Anderson, 2003). Measuring observer field skills enables managers to select the most qualified observers, thereby increasing confidence in collecting data (Evans, et al, 2009).

Survey methods involving identification of animal tracks are especially susceptible to observer errors (Wilson and Delahay, 2001). Although tracks and signs (including scat, hair, burrows and other indicators) can be the most efficient way to detect elusive animals (Beier and Cunningham, 1996), several factors (such as substrate quality, moisture level, age of track, animal movement) can cause tracks to be highly variable and difficult to identify. In surveys using tracks and sign, confidence in observer skills is of fundamental importance to the reliability of collecting data.

The standardized CyberTracker Tracker Evaluation procedure to asses the accuracy of observer reliability in counts of river otter tracks conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It was found that experienced observers misidentified 37% of otter tracks. In addition, 26% of tracks from species determined to be “otter-like” were misidentified as otter tracks (Evans et al, 2009). The educational utility of the CyberTracker Tracker Evaluation system was also demonstrated, showing substantial improvement in the scores of participants who attended the first evaluation (with an average score of 61%) and a second evaluation three months later (with an average score of 79%). This study demonstrated the necessity to reduce observer error in indirect sign surveys by adequately training and evaluating all field observers (Evans et al, 2009).

Many wildlife studies would benefit greatly from adopting standardized methods of evaluating skills of field biologists and data collectors. Methods such as the track and sign evaluation used in the study could be applied to a variety of research fields, both for testing validity of preexisting data and for quantitatively evaluating skills of field observers (Evans et al, 2009).

The CyberTracker tracker evaluation system has also demonstrated how the expertise of African trackers can be transferred to trackers in the developed world, such as the USA. The evaluation system was first developed in southern Africa to assess the skills of African trackers. Over a period of three years the American tracker and author Mark Elbroch mastered the CyberTracker evaluation system. In the process he improved his own tracking skills while being assessed in South Africa according to the standards set for African trackers, earning the Senior Tracker certificate. This then enabled him to initiate the CyberTracker evaluation system in the USA, applying the same standards to American trackers.

From its origins in the Kalahari, CyberTracker has now found its way into conservation projects worldwide. Most users simply use the CyberTracker software to record data. But the art of tracking also represents the most sophisticated and refined form of human observation. A fleeting glimpse of a small bird disappearing into a thick bush is closer to a sign of a bird than a clear sighting. A distant sighting of a whale in rough seas can be just as difficult to identify as an indistinct track. A dried out twig, with no flowers or green leaves, can make identification of a plant as difficult as identifying the faintest sign in the sand.

Whether looking at birds, butterflies, plants, whales, tracks or signs, human observations can be infinitely complex. The master trackers of the Kalahari can inspire the development of increasingly refined observation skills.

 

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