The CyberTracker (CT) system has proven to be an indispensable tool for field data collection in the Kruger National Park (KNP). The system was developed for application in conservation by Louis Liebenberg, and uses hand held (PalmOS) computers. Both literate and illiterate field workers can record observations along with their precise geographic location in latitude and longitude.
The small computers have customised databases that use small pictures (icons) with English and Shangaan descriptions that can be used to collect a variety of data that rangers and park staff can expect to encounter in their work. The easy to use interface has the potential to all but eliminate the time-consuming practice of data capture, allowing more time for scientific research, which leads KNP managers and scientists to a better understanding of the facets and fluxes of the diverse ecosystems in the park.
Typical data that CyberTracker is used to collect includes field ranger patrols, recording how much area was covered and by whom, field observation times and the type of patrol conducted eg foot, bicycle, vehicle. Field observations include what species were seen, from megaherbivores, ungulates and carnivores to small mammals, birds and reptiles. The spoor of humans and rare game can also be recorded, along with any details of poaching activities.
The amount of available surface water at both natural and artificial waterpoints and the location of diseased, injured or dead animals can be entered into the database. The rangers also record fence line breakages, and information for scientific projects underway in the park, such as the impact of elephants on sensitive tree species, the distribution of alien invaders, the location of bee hives for the Cape Honey Bee/Varroa Mite Project and the location of archaeological sites.
Fire mapping, including burn scars,ignition points and active fires, can also be performed. Field rangers from each section in the KNP are deployed on a daily basis with up to four CT units. Observations are recorded throughout the patrol and downloaded at the end of the day into the section rangerís database for review. At the end of every month the data is sent to scientific serviceís Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab in Skukuza.
The data is then entered into a database where it is cleaned, summarised and made accessible to everyone in the KNP network. The data helps management and scientific research through helping plan section patrols for area-integrity management and identifying trends in the exit and entry points of poachers. It also acts as an early warning system for disease outbreaks, and lets animal health officials know of any fence breaks. Invasive species control, wild dog monitoring, fire management, archaeological inventory and many other projects also benefit from the data.
As well as the Ranger Diary system, there are some units that are customised for vegetation surveys. These are used for long term ecological monitoring in fixed enclosures, along with vegetation surveys conducted in the neighbouring private nature reserves by the Agricultural Research Council.
Other data collected includes annual veld condition assessments for grazing quality and quantity as well as for fuel for burning; all aspects of alien species monitoring, including aquatic species; biodiversity/habitat surrogacy studies which predict the presence of species based on available habitat; elephant monitoring by the University of Pretoria (TUKS) looking at elephant behaviour and feeding; small mammal studies by TUKS, who capture and identify different species and attempt to associate them with different veld management practises and vegetation types; the location of all archaeological sites and an inventory of their artefacts by the department of people and conservation, and fire behaviour studies on the experimental burn plots.
The KNP first recognised the potential use of the CT system as an ecological data collection tool in early 2000, and purchased 44 Palm units along with Garmin GPS (Global Positioning System) units. CT was used on a trial basis in 2000 and 2001, when additional funding was sought to improve the system. In 2003 funds were donated from the Erna Goodwin estate and 120 new units with integrated GPS systems were purchased. This worked out as five units for each of the 22 management sections throughout the park, five for conservation services and five as replacement units.
In the near future the park hopes to produce downloadable sightings maps and GPS waypoints on their website to enable visitors to benefit from the CT species distribution data, especially for the big five and rare species.