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Alex Steffen, 26 Jan 04

Another interesting fusion of technology and field biology: cybertracker, a program which allows users to note observations about plants or animals on a GPS-empowered handheld, and then merge those observations into a larger map of how habitat is changing or animals are migrating. As this article puts it:

"NORDHOEK, South Africa -- Sitting at his laptop computer, Louis Liebenberg compares two maps of the same area: While the first is plotted thickly with yellow dots, the yellow areas on the second map are far sparser.

"These dots represent sightings of lowland gorillas recorded by trackers both before and after an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Lossi Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo. Using CyberTracker... the trackers were able to gather data that revealed in detail the decimation of the local gorilla population. Initially skeptical, scientists later confirmed their findings that the virus is killing gorillas and other animals, and published an article that appeared recently in the journal Science.

"It's quite a stunning example of what fairly regular collection of data by game guards doing patrols can tell us," Liebenberg said.

"Liebenberg came up with the idea of the CyberTracker while hunting with the indigenous Bushmen trackers of the Kalahari Desert. Fascinated with tracking since childhood, Liebenberg, an author and scientist, developed the theory that the ancient hunter-gatherer practice represents nothing less than the origins of science. Tracking an animal requires a process of making observations and testing hypotheses that is akin to scientific reasoning, he explained.

"Once necessary for survival, however, it is now a dying art. Today, Liebenberg said, he knows of only about six older Bushmen who remain subsistence hunters. Most youngsters now attend school, unlike their illiterate elders, but seldom learn the skills and encyclopedic knowledge necessary for tracking.

"If a way could be found to put the Bushmen's ancient knowledge to use for conservation purposes, he realized, both nature and the struggling Bushman communities would benefit.... "At the moment, there are not enough scientists out there gathering information," Liebenberg said. "If you have trackers on the ground working with scientists, in theory you could monitor the entire global ecosystem this way."

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