Mapping the future of wildlife conservation

In the fight to save Africa’s wild places, conservationists are using every tool at their disposal. Craig Beech, New Technologies Manager at Peace Parks Foundation, reveals how cutting-edge GIS technology is changing the face of conservation in Southern Africa.

Craig Beech understands the power of a great map. As a specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, he uses his mapping expertise to drive innovation at Peace Parks Foundation (PPF), an international NGO that advocates for cross-border conservation in Africa. Their GIS department gathers data that informs crucial conservation activities, from anti-poaching efforts and road infrastructure planning to eco-tourism in parks. Powered by tech, PPF is breaking boundaries in more ways than one.

Your work involves detailed maps. What is it about maps that people find so fascinating?

Maps are invaluable. Being visual, they offer context. Our work focuses on maps that offer information and knowledge rather than directions or a means of finding your way out of (or perhaps even into) trouble.

I know I’m biased, but Geographic Information System (GIS) is probably one of the most amazing technologies to have emerged under the radar in recent decades. Essentially, it is a tool that allows for information and knowledge sharing through mapped media. For example, if I want to show which roads in a part of Africa might potentially be flooded during the rainy season, I can use GIS software to create a simple overlay which maps that particular set of roads onto a flood map.

I think some of the coolest maps are those that you see from a distance, and something about the map draws you near, and when you step closer, a complete and sometimes complex story unfolds.

What does your work for Peace Parks Foundation entail exactly?

I was privileged enough to have been asked to start a GIS section for the Foundation because of my background in conservation and wildlife management. One of the early challenges we faced was sourcing data of a suitable level of accuracy and detail that would allow us to produce the requisite maps for decision support and advocacy. It was in these early days, about four years into our GIS Programme, that we met with Wouter Brand and Johann Groenewald of Tracks4Africa and our relationship with, and I can almost say reliance on, T4A began. The burden of having to ensure accurate road and track data of all our projects sites was eased through this relationship.

Also read: On the road with travelling conservationists

Data Collection Training
Peace Parks Foundation employees carry out data collection training at various protected areas in Southern Africa. Pictures supplied by Craig Beech.

How do you use T4A data in your work?

T4A is one of our key partners. T4A data is used throughout our planning interventions, both for tourism development as well as park development. We also use T4A data to update park maps for management and sometimes even tourism use.

Think about Uber. If Uber were to have created their own map engine rather than tap into the map services offered by Google maps, they probably would not exist. Similarly, if PPF had replicated the exercise of deriving our own roads and tracks data, we would most likely not have adequate resources to focus on the conservation GIS work we do. PPF cannot credit and acknowledge T4A enough for their amazing contribution to our and other conservation efforts.

What are some of the interesting questions GIS has helped answer for PPF?

One of the most notable examples is the identification of wildlife dispersal areas and species corridors. This is done by overlaying Land Cover/Land Use, population data, roads and various other infrastructural data. We then use the system to identify linkages between biodiversity hotspots to allow animal movement with no or minimal human-wildlife conflict taking place.

Another analytically valuable process is identifying the current environmental character of a landscape. This process pins down wilderness areas and areas where there is no notable human impact, even to the extent of visual or noise pollution. A wilderness area can be defined as a landscape that has no visual, audio or physical human impact within 15km.

Solar panels charging
Rangers use solar panels to keep their power banks full so that they can charge their devices at night.

What is the most memorable location you’ve travelled to for PPF and how long did it take to get there?

Often due to time constraints, we fly into major centres and from there we move off into protected areas. One memorable extended trip we did was in 2010. We had done some detailed land cover mapping of the Mozambique components of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA), Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area as well as Chimanimani Transfrontier Park.

In order to verify the accuracy of these maps we had to visit Limpopo, Banhine and Zinave National Parks, all of which fall within the GLTFCA and Chimanimani National Reserve and validate what we had mapped from satellite imagery by matching it with what was on the ground. We travelled extensively for three weeks through various parks using random samples to confirm map accuracy, eventually reaching Chimanimani National Reserve on the border with Zimbabwe.

This is a gem of a park, shared across the boundary as the Chimanimani Transfrontier Park. Picture high peaks and deep gorges all plumed with dense forests. A journey certainly worth doing more than once in a lifetime.

Also read: Exploring the east of Zimbabwe

Craig Beech in the field
Craig Beech (left) and rangers at co-operating parks are working hard to protect ecosystems that transcend man-made borders.

Do you consider yourself a good navigator and why?

Yes and no! It depends on the map. I have found that with some maps I am immediately lost, and I need to find myself first before I can interpret the map for navigation. I am almost always aware of where I am in the landscape, even if it is just knowing in which direction I am moving, or needing to move toward, or knowing where the last known infrastructure was.

What is the most important thing visitors to Africa’s wild places should know?

That at each and every park, protected area or landscape you visit, you should stop to consider the dynamics and complexities of what that landscape offers you. How often do we access these areas yet never think about their intrinsic value? The value residing in the specific biodiversity and in the landscape’s potential of sequestering carbon or restoring a tired spirit. Know that its value is not accurately quantified or perceived in the slightest, by any of us. We are merely visitors and we should respect these landscapes for what they are, what they contain and the people who depend on them for their survival.

Data Collection training team
Rangers use hand-held devices like cyber trackers to collect field data. 

Peace Parks Foundation strives to remove borders that are physical barriers to wildlife migration. What is your personal experience with borders?

I recall as a young pre-teenager one of our first family trips to Botswana in the early ’80s. We were a week into our holiday when we came across a herd of wildebeest. Some had collapsed due to weakness, dehydration and hunger, while others were still walking the length of a fence line in both directions. This left a lasting impression on me. In my subsequent work, data from collared animals almost always shows that animals disregard man-made boundaries, except those that are physically impenetrable.

My personal experience with borders is mixed. I have in recent years been utterly frustrated whilst queueing and wondering what the delay is. Other times, the experience has been flawless. Our recent Easter visit to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) was nothing but a friendly and seamless experience. We cleared customs and immigration at Twee Rivieren without a hitch and could head off to Mabuasehube for a weeklong visit in the Botswana section.

Also read: Tips for hassle-free border crossings in Africa: before you leave

Which African country has stolen your heart, and why?

Every African country I have visited has a piece of my heart and mind. There are places I have sat in the early mornings, while engineering that important cup of coffee, where I felt amazed to be a part of the African continent and organisations such as PPF, T4A and many others, all of whom are working hard to protect and create an awareness of these impeccable and valuable landscapes.

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