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CyberTracking for Africa’s most endangered ape

  • Protected area staff use the handheld tool CyberTracker to collect data and produce spatial and statistical analyses to guard gorillas in Cross River reserves.
  • The system aids the conservation of the critically endangered Cross River gorilla, improving law enforcement by facilitating the monitoring of wildlife, human interferences and patrols.
  • CyberTracker use is expanding to other reserves in West Africa and around the globe, both on its own and, in places like the Cross River landscape, in combination with SMART analysis software.

As dusk descends on Cameroon and Nigeria’s montane forest patches every evening, the brawny black apes inhabiting these 3,000 square miles of remote, highly biodiverse jungle crawl into the individual plant-branch beds they’ve made for the night. Counting these nests, biologists estimate that no more than 200 to 300 Cross River gorillas remain in the wild; poaching and, to a lesser extent, habitat degradation resulting from subsistence agriculture, have decimated their population.

Conservationists have been using the CyberTracker platform to more effectively monitor this gorilla subspecies, the most endangered African ape, and its habitat for over seven years. The system enables patrolling teams to record automatically georeferenced and timestamped observational data on biological indicators (wildlife sightings, calls, tracks), active threats (gunshots, expended cartridges, snares) and law enforcement performance (patrol effort, measured by patrolled days and km) on certain Android smartphones and tablets or rugged handheld computers. Its use has enhanced the efficiency of data collection and analysis, database management, patrols and enforcement monitoring, strengthening conservation efforts targeting the Cross River gorilla and other at-risk species.

“The ability to gather large amounts of geo-referenced field data quickly and analyze and share information simply in a timely manner makes CyberTracker an important tool for law enforcement monitoring,” said Inaoyom Imong, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)’s Cross River Director.

Cross River gorilla at Cameroon’s Limbe Wildlife Centre. No more than 300 remain in the wild, scattered among at least 11 groups in the remote highland forests of Nigeria and Cameroon. Photo credit: Arend de Haas.

“There wasn’t any cohesive approach to monitoring gorillas, monitoring threats, and using data from monitoring to plan conservation until CyberTracker,” added Richard Bergl, North Carolina Zoo Curator of Conservation and Research. “CyberTracker allowed us to much more easily collect data of conservation relevance on distribution of gorillas, distribution of threats, intensity of threats, areas surveyed, areas patrolled. We were able to set up tables, reports and maps in the software instead of having the data sent to scientists in the US or Europe.”

CyberTracker has also helped the project monitor the frequency, duration and extent of ranger patrols, serving as a staff management as well as anti-poaching enforcement tool. By keeping rangers accountable and directing patrols to hotspots of human activity recorded by previous patrols, the system has enhanced patrol planning and effectiveness.

“Improved monitoring of law enforcement effort and comparison between sites in the landscape has helped raise awareness of conservation problems such as hunting and illegal farming at specific sites, enhancing our ability to work on solutions moving forward,” explained Imong.

Richard Bergl, North Carolina Zoo Curator of Conservation and Research, designed CyberTracker’s gorilla monitoring database and has been training and supporting staff in Nigeria and Cameroon in the system’s use. Photo credit: NC Zoo.

Promising outcomes

After CyberTracker became a part of law enforcement in Nigeria’s Cross River region, its protected areas have become a rare example of forested equatorial African reserves showing a reduction in wildlife threats. According to Bergl, who led the creation and deployment of the monitoring system in the Cross River landscape, the patrol data collected from 2009 to 2013 in Nigeria’s Mbe Mountains Community Wildlife Sanctuary demonstrates the technology’s success in alleviating threats. For many sites in the 100 square-km protected area, use of CyberTracker increased the number of patrol days 100% and increased patrol effort, measured in km walked, 200%. The switch to the mobile monitoring system also corresponded with a significant decrease in expended shotgun cartridges, gunshots and snaring rates. A rising or stable trend in primate encounter rates, increase in patrol effort and decrease in human activity indicators together suggest diminished threat due to enhanced enforcement rather than to diminished fauna, or “empty forest syndrome.” Similarly, the neighboring Okwangwo Division of Cross River National Park reported a significant decrease in hunting since adopting CyberTracker, despite a shortage of anti-poaching equipment and funds.

What makes it helpful?

Multiple characteristics make CyberTracker a more effective monitoring tool than the pen, paper, common GPS unit and GIS or statistical software ensemble Cross River conservationists formerly used. Paper data sheets are prone to water damage, whereas CyberTracker’s rugged handheld units, the result of several test models, withstand the region’s high humidity and temperature and the frequent exposure to dirt, rain and impact in the forest. Handwritten observations can be illegible and laborious; CyberTracker allows for quicker, more coherent data recording. Because all information gathered through this platform adheres to one format, the tool facilitates comparisons among different areas and contributes to an expanding standardized database of landscape-scale conservation data.

Cross River field worker entering patrol data in the CyberTracker handset. Photo credit: NC Zoo.

CyberTracker’s automatic integration of observed and geographic data clearly conveys where wildlife, concerning activity and enforcement actions occur. It enables field workers to keep track of their location using real-time satellite mapping and produce visual displays of patrols. Managers can also follow and evaluate rangers’ movements and effort with its automated five-minute-interval track-logging feature. The monitoring system’s desktop database facilitates swift, simple analysis and reporting of downloaded information, speeding up communication between rangers and managers and supporting adaptive management. CyberTracker’s intuitive touchscreen interface, modeled on rangers’, managers’, and project directors’ insights, makes it accessible to protected area staff with little technical training, formal education or literacy, reducing the risk of input errors. Its automated features allow those lacking GIS knowledge to produce insightful spatial analyses, maps and reports of various classes of collected data to guide timely conservation action.

Originally created in South Africa to aid illiterate Kalahari bushmen in wildlife tracking, and now used worldwide for various data collection purposes, CyberTracker came to the Cross River ecosystem through a partnership between WCS and North Carolina Zoo. Sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Conservation Endowment Fund and North Carolina Zoo, they developed, tested and implemented the monitoring platform in protected areas harboring the Cross River gorilla starting in 2008. By the following January, they had successfully deployed it to these reserves, supplying field and research staff from WCS, the Cameroon Ministry of Wildlife and Forests, the Nigerian National Parks Service and other conservation groups with CyberTracker units. Bergl designed CyberTracker’s gorilla monitoring database and has been training and supporting staff in Nigeria and Cameroon in the system’s use and maintenance. Meanwhile, WCS has been supervising daily monitoring and protection on the ground.

A large Cross River gorilla captured in a camera trap. Photo credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

Although CyberTracker has promoted the conservation of endangered fauna, such as the Cross River gorilla, by improving field data collection, the monitoring platform does have drawbacks. Bergl admitted that even though mobile devices are much more efficient and accurate than paper-based alternatives, the former are harder to obtain and maintain. For one, they’re more expensive, especially the rugged handsets, which cost $1,500 each. The hardware, particularly standard smartphones, are susceptible to damage in the wet tropical environment, handled by field staff that are not adequately careful with electronic equipment; without proper backup, this could cause data loss. The logistics of safely keeping, recharging, repairing and replacing the units are challenging, threatening to disrupt long patrols. What’s more, the software has limited database, query, analysis and mapping functions and cannot be used with multiple tiers of access.

Additionally, the mobile devices could be more user-friendly, considering protected area staff’s often low level of digital literacy, which often necessitates basic computer instruction before CyberTracker training. As Imong pointed out, locating satellites to gather georeferenced data can be difficult and time-consuming in dense forest cover, which can delay patrols and decrease patrol coverage. Bergl cites the lack of a manual and supporting materials, formal training, capacity and technical support and funding as other disadvantages. In addition, apart from the observed trends in strengthened enforcement activity and decreased poaching signs noted with CyberTracker, there are no means to directly measure the technology’s effect on wildlife populations such as the gorillas’.

Silver-back Cross River gorilla feeding on stem. Photo credit: Ruggiero Richard.

Getting SMART

CyberTracker continues to evolve to meet changing frontline needs, and its success as an anti-poaching monitoring tool has seen it expand to other West African regions of conservation interest. Under Bergl’s leadership, it’s also in the process of being integrated with the newer Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) across the Cross River landscape; all sites in Nigeria and one in Cameroon have adopted it so far. Coupling CyberTracker’s data collection interface with SMART software’s greater arsenal of statistics and power of analysis, incorporation of intelligence and planning and automated reporting can further help guide patrols and species research and conservation activities (check out how SMART has been transforming wildlife law enforcement around the world here).

“Using CyberTracker has greatly improved law enforcement monitoring in the Cross River gorilla landscape,” concluded Imong. “We expect even greater improvement with the introduction of SMART.”