CyberTracker has grown from a simple hypothesis: The art of tracking may have been the origin of science. Science may have evolved more than a hundred thousand years ago with the evolution of modern hunter-gatherers. Scientific reasoning may therefore be an innate ability of the human mind. This may have far-reaching implications for indigenous knowledge and tracking science.
Persistence hunting may have played a crucial role in the evolution of the art of tracking. It may well be one of the oldest forms of hunting, practiced long before humans invented bows and arrows.
I ran the persistence hunt with !Nate at Lone Tree in the Kalahari, running down a kudu in the mid-day heat on an extremely hot day – chasing the antelope until it dropped from heat exhaustion.
In 1990 !Nate asked me to help them. Wildlife in the Kalahari had been decimated by fences that cut off migration routes. It was no longer viable to live as hunter-gatherers and after hundreds of thousands of years, traditional tracking skills were dying out. Yet tracking can be developed into a new science with far-reaching implications for nature conservation.
After discussions around the fire, it was decided that we should try to find a way to create jobs for trackers. Only by developing tracking into a modern profession, will tracking itself survive into the future.
The CyberTracker Tracker Certification enables trackers to get jobs in ecotourism, as rangers in anti-poaching units, in wildlife monitoring and scientific research. Tracker certification have since 1994 resulted in increasing levels of tracking skills in Africa, USA and Europe, thereby reviving tracking as a modern profession.
If the art of tracking was the origin of science, then modern-day trackers should be able to do science. However, some of the best indigenous trackers in Africa cannot read or write.
The CyberTracker Icon User Interface for oralate (non-literate) trackers was developed in 1996 with the help of Karel Benadie, a tracker working in the Karoo National Park in South Africa. Together with fellow ranger and tracker James Minye, they tracked the highly endangered Black Rhino, recording their movements and behaviour in minute detail. Together we published a paper on rhino feeding behaviour in the journal Pachyderm. This is perhaps the first paper based on data gathered independently by two oralate trackers, confirming a hypothesis about rhino feeding behaviour put forward by the trackers. It was a demonstration that oralate trackers can do science.
In addition to projects with Kalahari San trackers, CyberTracker projects have also been initiated with indigenous communities in Australia, Canada, South America and other parts of the world. Involving scientists and local communities in key areas of biodiversity, CyberTracker combines indigenous knowledge with state-of-the-art computer and satellite technology.
The CyberTracker story is captured in the powerful image of Karoha holding the CyberTracker, with his hunting bag slung over his shoulder. The image symbolises the cultural transition from hunter-gatherer to the modern computer age. Persistence hunting may be the most ancient form of hunting, possibly going back two million years, long before the invention of the bow-and-arrow or the domestication of dogs. After two million years, Karoha may well be one the last hunters who has been doing the persistence hunt. Yet of all the hunters at Lone Tree, Karoha is the most proficient in using the CyberTracker. In Karoha, one individual not only represents one of the most ancient human traditions, but also the future of tracking with computers.
Karoha’s story represents the most profound cultural leap – a story that gives hope for the future: The ancient art of tracking can be revitalized and developed into a new science to monitor the impact of climate change on biodiversity.
At a more fundamental level, it shows us that anyone, regardless of their level of education, whether or not they can read or write, regardless of their cultural background, can make a contribution to science.
A significant potential value of long term biodiversity monitoring by communities is that outbreaks of infectious diseases may be detected in time to avert the tragic loss of human lives.
The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has resulted in huge cost in human lives and economic losses. In future it may be more cost-effective to monitor signs of potential outbreaks of Ebola among wildlife, especially along trade routes that may spread Ebola to highly populated areas.
During the Ebola outbreaks in Gabon and the Republic of Congo from 2001 to 2003 CyberTracker data showed a significant drop in animal numbers by monitoring signs of gorilla, chimpanzee, duiker and bush pig. Wild animal outbreaks began before each of the five human Ebola outbreaks. Twice it was possible to alert the health authorities to an imminent risk for human outbreaks, weeks before they occurred.
The NatureMapping Program and BioKIDS have been using CyberTracker in elementary, primary and secondary schools in the USA for science and environmental education. Data collection is a core component of the science curriculum.
BioKIDS is a unique science education program that teaches students to be better observers and places emphasis on critical thinking skills. Students gather data on living things in their schoolyard, upload the data to a central server, then get reports on the combined data for further analysis as part of the curriculum. This facilitates exploration of local biodiversity using advanced technologies as tools for research and learning.
Graduate students worldwide are using CyberTracker to collect field data for their MSc and PhD theses. We received a beautiful thank-you letter from PhD student Sarah Dwyer, who wrote that: “I wanted to share a recent publication with you about bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand. I used CyberTracker for 3 years of boat-based data collection for my PhD project that I am in the final stages of writing up now. Thanks for all the hard work you do to enable students like me to use the software for free :-)”