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What’s on the smart phone/tablet application horizon? To find out, follow the wildebeest.

© Daniel Rosengren
© Daniel Rosengren

Through an app currently under development, biologists will soon link people in Africa and around the globe with the Serengeti and its migratory species like wildebeest and zebras.

“If we want the Serengeti ecosystem to survive, we need to share its wonders with the world,” says scientist Markus Borner of the University of Glasgow, who has long studied savanna ecosystems. The app, he says, offers a new way of doing that.

© Daniel Rosengren
© Daniel Rosengren

Serengeti National Park has more than 178 000 visitors each year, says ecologist Grant Hopcraft, also of the University of Glasgow. In addition, more than 100 000 Tanzania residents pass through the park annually. The majority have smart phones or tablets, says Hopcraft, who’s leading the app project.

“The congestion that sometimes happens around wildlife sightings is usually close to lodges,” he says. “About 90 percent of Serengeti tourists visit no more than three percent of the park.” The app will change that, Hopcraft says, by offering a new way to find animals – and encouraging tour operators to explore less crowded areas.

The app in action.
The app in action.

Through the app, he and colleagues plan to offer wildlife-watchers an interactive way of following the great migration: the journey of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and other grazing animals as they trail cyclical rains and greening grasses from the Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara. App users will know exactly where and when the migration is happening.

In turn, they can contribute to conservation efforts by observing the locations of wildebeest and zebras and conveying that information to scientists. Users may report besieged species like elephants and rhinos, but for protection of the animals, the information will be a one-way transmission. The app will send alerts to Serengeti officials with the times, dates and locations of the observations. There’s also a function to send word of animals in distress; notices are then fed to authorities.

A screen shot of what the app will look like
A screen shot of what the app will look like

The app will provide real-time locations of wildebeest, zebras and species such as eland antelopes as they move across the Serengeti and into the Masai Mara. The data will come from herbivores wearing GPS collars as part of a project to find out where and when they choose to cross the vast plains.

© Daniel Rosengren
© Daniel Rosengren
© Daniel Rosengren
© Daniel Rosengren

GPS collars are lightweight, battery-powered receivers that use satellite-based navigation systems to relay whereabouts every 12 hours via SMS phone messages.

“By compiling thousands of locations from GPS-collared animals every year,” says Hopcraft, “we can generate accurate maps of where and when they’re moving.”

The ability to keep constant tabs on where animals roam has also allowed scientists to analyze how they make decisions about when to go from place-to-place.

“Online databases, smart-phone apps, crowd-sourcing and new hardware are making it easier to collect data on species,” states conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University in a paper in the May 29, 2014, issue of the journal Science. “They’re allowing closer monitoring of the planet’s biodiversity.”

Through what might be called smart collars, Hopcraft detected that although wildebeest and zebras migrate together, they move on for different reasons. Wildebeest spend their time nosing from grass patch to grass patch looking for fresh grazing areas. Zebras hoof it faster, balancing a need for food with the risk of becoming a meal for predators like lions.

© Daniel Rosengren
© Daniel Rosengren

When the migration is at its peak, some 1.3 million wildebeest, 250 000 zebras and 300 000 gazelles converge on the same parts of the Serengeti. The best fields of grass are mowed flat almost instantly. To survive, an animal is forced to reach the next verdant hotspot before everyone else, galloping onward long before the last tasty morsel has been munched. Ultimately it’s every wildebeest and zebra for itself in the melee of hooves pounding across the Serengeti.

To follow the app’s progress, please watch: http://serengeti-tracker.org/map/.

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Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a science journalist and ecologist, and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, brings her passion for wildlife and conservation to many publications, including Africa Geographic, Scientific American, BBC Wildlife and The Washington Post. She has been a featured speaker on science journalism and conservation biology, and serves on the committees of several international scientific societies.