Citizen Science flourishes at the Animal Demography Unit

Les Underhill
Animal Demography Unit

Have you ever wished you could be a research scientist helping to conserve our wildlife, but you don't have a formal degree or any scientific training? At the University of Cape Town's Animal Demography Unit (ADU) there is a menagerie of projects to choose from, providing citizen scientists (or volunteers) the opportunity to get outdoors and collect valuable data for science and conservation. It's easy to become involved and it's a lot of fun. Here follows a brief summary of the various citizen science, or volunteer, projects at the ADU.

The ADU is a leader in atlas projects in South Africa. It all began 21 years ago when fieldwork started for the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1). It ran for five years, ending in 1992 and produced the first comprehensive atlas of bird distributions for southern Africa. Thousands of citizen scientists enthusiastically provided over 100 000 checklists for SABAP1. The maps produced have subsequently been used in recent bird field guides and the seventh edition of Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa. Bird distributions have changed in the last two decades, but how much have they changed and what implications does this have for bird biodiversity conservation? SABAP1 proved to be so popular, that SABAP2 was launched to help answer these questions. SABAP2 was launched on 1 July 2007 and plans to run until 2011, covering South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. It is funded by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), with the ADU the main implementing agency. BirdLife South Africa is coordinating the training and public outreach component of the project. SABAP2 has been refined to collect more detailed information on bird distributions, and submission of data is mainly electronic. Data and coverage maps are reflected and updated on the project website every three hours. The project requires some level of bird identification but novice birders can also get involved by attending training sessions and bird ID courses which are run by regional bird clubs. The project also has Regional Atlas Committees which assist in promoting the project and getting prospective atlasers up and running. Currently there are 462 active registered atlasers. For more information on the project, details on the protocols, and how to register as an atlaser. please visit SABAP2 or contact Doug Harebottle (doug[dot]harebottle[at]uct[dot]ac[dot]za, Tel 021 650 2330) or Les Underhill (les[dot]underhill[at]uct[dot]ac[dot]za, Tel 021 650 3227).

After SABAP1, atlassing was well established within the ADU, and so the Southern African Frog Atlas Project (SAFAP) was launched in 1995. This project was completed in 2003 and a Frog Red Data Book and Atlas was published soon thereafter. 420 citizen scientists submitted data towards SAFAP. Frogs naturally led on to reptiles.

Nile Crocodiles, Puff Adders and Cape Cobras - all creatures that strike fear into the hearts of many South Africans. But these are just a few of a fascinating group of animals that can be described as "mostly harmless". The Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment (SARCA) was launched in 2005 and is about to end in March 2009. The reptile biodiversity of South Africa and its neighbours, Lesotho and Swaziland, is astonishing; about 410 types of reptiles, with new types discovered every year. Yet basic information about these creatures - distribution, conservation status and threats - is hard to come by. This is a situation that SARCA aims to rectify. SARCA is a partnership between the ADU and the SANBI. Twenty experts have freely given of their time and knowledge to compile up-to-date assessments, according to IUCN standards, of the status of the region's reptiles. This information will be compiled into a long-overdue new Red Data Book, due to be published by SANBI in 2009. The last such publication on reptiles appeared twenty years ago! The new publication will not only be a Reptile Red Data Book but also an Atlas. Since 2005, SARCA has collected reptile distribution data from museums, literature sources, members of the public (via the innovative online Virtual Museum for the submission of reptile photos) and through the project's own field trips. The Virtual Museum has received 6000+ photographic records submitted by 350 citizen scientists. The Atlas will, for the first time, bring all of these records into a single publication, with maps illustrating where in the region which reptiles occur.

By now the atlas bug was well established within the ADU, and a bug atlas was decided on. Consequently, the Southern African Butterfly Conservation Assessment (SABCA) was launched in April 2007, ending in 2011. SABCA has similar aims to SARCA, and will also produce an updated Butterfly Red Data book and Atlas. It is a partnership between the ADU (project management), SANBI (funding) and the Lepidopterists' Society of Africa (LepSoc; funding and expertise). There are close to 700 species of butterflies in the atlas region, of which about 40 are threatened with extinction and two are already extinct. To get a better understanding of South Africa's butterfly biodiversity and conservation priorities, SABCA is basing its conservation assessments on data from museum and private collections, field surveys and an online virtual museum which was launched due to the popularity of SARCA's online Virtual Museum. Over 100 citizen scientists have submitted photos to the virtual museum, and 5000+ photographic records have been received - a great achievement in a short space of time. LepSoc members are voluntarily giving up much of their free time to conduct the field surveys, assist with the ID of butterfly photos and to conduct the conservation assessments for all our butterfly species. More information on how to become part of the butterfly net can be obtained on SABCA's website.

The ADU was originally known as the Avian Demography Unit, and runs other non-atlas type bird projects which cater for citizen scientist involvement. SAFRING is based at the ADU and provides bird ringing services in South Africa and other African countries. This entails providing ringing equipment to qualified ringers, and curating all ringing data. SAFRING holds national training courses, annually if there is sufficient demand. SAFRING has a strict code of ethics to ensure the safety of birds handled. SAFRING acknowledges the importance of bird ringing in that it has been described as the most important tool in ornithology in the 20th century. SAFRING celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008. Most bird ringers are amateurs and spend their own time and money to contribute valuable ringing data. Birds with rings that are found by the general public should be reported to SAFRING (email, tel: 021-650-2421) and a history of the bird will be sent to the ringer and to the reporter. Currently there are about 150 active bird ringers. All citizen scientists can also help by keeping a close watch for colour rings on living birds.

If you'd rather count than ring birds, get into your car and join CAR (Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts). Imagine driving 19 000 km along gravel country roads, stopping every 2 km, to count cranes, bustards, storks and other large terrestrial birds within seven provinces on one day! This is only possible due to the combined efforts of over 750 bird-watchers (farmers, bird club members, nature conservationists and some schools) who climb into their cars on the last Saturdays of January and July to count these big birds, along 350 fixed routes, through agricultural areas. The CAR project, coordinated by the ADU, monitors trends in populations and habitat use of over 30 species, including 15 threatened Red Data species. The project has been running for over ten years in most regions and fifteen years in the Overberg region of the Western Cape where it began. Most large terrestrial birds have huge ranges and are not adequately conserved within protected areas. These birds are also very important indicators of biodiversity on farms. For more information visit the CAR webpage. The CAR project is also supported by SANBI, as well as bird clubs and for a fixed period the Darwin Initiative project 15/002 and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

How about counting waterbirds at the many wetlands around our country? If you are interested, then the Coordinated Waterbird Counts Project, CWAC for short, is for you! The CWAC project started in 1992 and today, 17 years one, it is still going strong. Currently the project monitors approximately 400 wetlands around the country on a bi-annual basis; once in summer and once in winter. The counts are conducted by citizen scientists, and at the moment we have around 1 600 people from all over the country volunteering their time towards this worthwhile cause. The focus is on waterbirds only, which include mainland and shorebird species of which there are approximately 140 in South Africa. Wetlands that form part of the project range in shape, size and distribution, can be natural or artificial, permanently wet or seasonal, freshwater or marine. If it supports waterbirds, it can be included in the project! For more information, please feel free to visit the CWAC website. The CWAC project is supported by SANBI.

Each data point the ADU's citizen scientists collect is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of biodiversity. The ADU's mission is to fit together all the puzzle pieces, so that we can map South Africa's biodiversity through time. We turn the myriad bits of raw data into the kind of information that conservation decisions can be based on. As a member of the public, you no longer need to be an "activist" to contribute to conservation, you can be a citizen scientist, contributing your pieces to the jigsaw. If you're a budding citizen scientist or looking for new projects to join, consider joining the ADU projects, to help us get the bigger picture.