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Trailblazer

In the far reaches of the Kalahari Desert, in southern Africa, researcher Louis Liebenberg is deploying what may be the first illiterate computers integrated into a hunter-gatherer society, a group known as the San Bushmen. The desert natives, now thought to be the first people, are famous for their mysterious capacity to decipher animal tracks, or spoor, in the natural environment. The plethora of specific data that a Bushman can extract from even a partial spoor has astonished scientists for decades: This unusual ability is subtle and multispectral; it’s steeped in an experience of nature that recognizes no division of life into distinct categories.

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Liebenberg’s handheld device allows a Bushman to enter spoor readings and other observations, hit a button, and register, via satellite, the place and time of the observation. The information is transferred to a central database, where it is correlated to produce a dynamic map of the location, and then used to study ecological relationships, animal behavior patterns, and even poaching activity (a Bushman can tell from a track whether an animal is fleeing a human or natural predator). The info is also used to inform guides about activities of scientific, documentary, or tourist significance, as well as for a wide variety of conservation applications.

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