By Mphathi Nxumalo
Durban - A new phone application could change the way bird conservation is carried out – and also help fight poaching.
The app, called Birdlasser, was showcased at the Nurturing Environmental Sustainability Through Technology summit at the Manyoni Bush Camp in Mkuze at the weekend.
The free technology encourages users to log bird sightings they make and enter the information in the app. The data then gets sent to the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town and becomes available for academics, people doing environmental impact assessments, conservation companies – as well as the public.
The entire process, from the time someone logs the information to being received in Cape Town, takes just three minutes.
The information will also form part of the Southern African Bird Atlasing Project 2, an update of the previous project which was conducted between 1987 and 1991.
The project will help provide an understanding of the changes bird populations have gone through in terms of habitat and population.
Birdlasser creator Henk Nel said: “It started with a vision four years ago on how technology can work towards conservation. I saw birding needed technology. There were apps, but they were not professionally done.”
Nel, 39, said although the idea had been percolating in his head for four years, actual software development started last November and was completed in August.
He has put his life savings into the project and says that, despite this, he has the support of his family. But it had not been an easy road.
“I am aware that not everything goes smoothly. I have learned not to be too emotionally involved in the project even though the project feels like my baby.”
He has learned to take advice from his colleagues about various aspects of the project, he said.
He describes the response to the project as “overwhelming.” The app will have a competitive edge too. A list of top spotters who have the most spottings will be posted on the Facebook page.
According to Nel the “gamification” of the app will encourage enthusiasts to do as much bird watching as possible. “Introducing the gamification aspect helps to make the spotting fun and competitive,” Nel said.
The app’s users will have to do “intensive” birding in a 7km by 8km area for a minimum of two hours and a maximum of 10 a hours a day over a five-day period.
Information systems specialist at the Animal Demography Unit based at the University of Cape Town, Michael Brooks, said they have taken into consideration the possibility of people trying to “cheat” by reporting false bird sightings.
Brooks said if there is a suspicious sighting, the person who made the sighting has to give a justification on whether it is taken to a committee of regional experts. The committee makes the final decision on whether to accept the sighting or not.
“With the app, we will be able to get information that is live and get real data in real time… It is a project that I believe will be useful to citizens and scientists.”
The data will be used by the SA National Biodiversity Institute which can influence government policy.
Communications co-ordinator at African Parks, Carien Soldatos, said she wanted to take the model and use it for anti-poaching activities in the seven parks the organisation operates in.
“We are looking for a technology solution for park management and anti-poaching. I know Birdlasser is for birds, but we believe we can use it for anti-poaching. We would like to develop something similar to Birdlasser. We are looking especially at getting field data and use it for planning.”
Soldatos said the model would be used by rangers and field guides. This was important as it could monitor fires started by poachers.
“Poachers use fires to push animals in a certain direction and isolate them and poach them. We could use satellite images to track fires and send the correct amount of rangers to the scene,” Soldatos said.
The app is currently available on iPhones,. But an Android version is currently being developed. The app currently caters for Southern Africa.