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Africa Geographic Travel

To effectively manage and conserve wildlife we need to know where they are and understand why they’re there. But the reality is that across Africa, our knowledge of the whereabouts of many mammals is, at best – outdated, and, at worst – based on unverified anecdotes. Filling this crucial gap in our knowledge is the main aim of MammalMAP – the African Mammal Atlas Project.

Started in 2011, MammalMAP has been working towards this one ambitious goal: to update the distribution maps for all of Africa’s wild mammals – the small ones, the big ones, those that fly and those that swim.

Cape Mountain Zebra © Megan Loftie-Eaton
Cape mountain zebra © Megan Loftie-Eaton

We produce these maps using information that we gather in two ways. First, we collaborate with biologists, field rangers, conservation organisations and wildlife authorities that work across Africa, collecting information for particular species, or particular areas. We integrate all of this biological data together into one database. But, of course, biologists can’t work everywhere, and they can’t study everything, so even databases full of biological information can be patchy in space, time, and species coverage. So to augment this large database, we use our second method of gathering data: we harness the power of citizen scientists.

A citizen scientist is anyone who helps to gather information that is useful, in some way, to science. In our case, citizen scientists are people – young and old – who let us know what mammals they’ve seen around them at their homes, and on their holidays. In fact, people who live across Africa, or those who explore Africa, can have a greater reach than biologists and conservation authorities, and can spot and record a greater variety of mammal species across a much larger area. So absolutely anyone, anywhere can help us to map Africa’s mammals!

Dwarf Mongoose © Megan Loftie-Eaton
Dwarf mongoose © Megan Loftie-Eaton

By combining these records from both biologists and citizen scientists, MammalMAP is then able to build more robust and more complete pictures of the 21st Century distribution of African mammals. These maps in turn can have a powerful impact on conservation.

First, we can use them to compare the current distribution records with historical and future records to see any range expansions, contractions and fragmentations. From this we can see how the distribution ranges have changed, and understand how these changes are linked to habitat and climate changes. These maps and range changes also help us to assess the extinction risks of each species and to assign it with an appropriate level of protection using the IUCN Red Data Lists. Finally, MammalMAP maps can also be used to guide landscape conservation (deciding which areas should be made into protected areas) to ensure maximum biodiversity protection.

Samango monkeys © Megan Loftie-Eaton
Samango monkeys © Megan Loftie-Eaton

So grab your DSLR, your camera trap or your cell phone, and whenever you see an African mammal – big or small, living or road kill – snap a photograph of it, record the date and GPS co-ordinates, and then submit your record to the online MammalMAP virtual museum! You can even use one of the clever and fun new Smart Phone apps (like Africa: Live or Tracking the Wild) to record your mammal sightings. Using these apps, you simply take a photograph of the African mammal you’ve spotted and the app takes care of everything else. For larger submissions (more than 10 photographs) you can email us and we will explain how you can send multiple photographs to us using an online file transfer system.

The quality of the photographs is not important. What matters is that we can identify the mammal in the photo, and that we know where and when the photograph was taken. Also, it is not a problem if you are unsure what the mammal is – submit the photograph anyway and our panel of specialists will identify the species for you.

Wahlberg's epauletted fruit bat © Megan Loftie-Eaton
Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat © Megan Loftie-Eaton

So, if you feel you need a holiday, take some time off in the name of conservation and photograph some African mammals. Every photograph is important, and every picture of every mammal can play a crucial part in conserving it. So please help us at MammalMAP to conserve Africa’s mammal species!

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The Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town believes that the best way to achieve biodiversity conservation is through enabling conservation decisions to be based on solid quantitative evidence. The mission of the Animal Demography Unit is to contribute to the understanding of animal populations, especially population dynamics, and thus provide input to their conservation. We achieve this through mass citizen science participation projects, long-term monitoring, innovative statistical modelling and population-level interpretation of results. Visit our Facebook page to keep up to date with all the latest news.

Africa Geographic Travel