(Photo: Courtesy of Drone Adventures)

Help Save Namibia’s Endangered Rhinos by Becoming a Digital Ranger

A new project is recruiting citizen scientists to spot wildlife in online images—and help thwart poachers in the process.
Sep 19, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Now you can help save Namibia’s endangered rhinoceroses right from your couch.

Instead of “dialing this toll-free number with your credit card ready,” researchers are asking citizen volunteers to get online and use the Internet for what it was intended for—searching for animal pictures and sharing them.

Called the MicroMappers Wildlife Challenge, the pilot program takes aerial imagery shot by drones to create an online photomap of Namibia’s Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve. Project organizer Patrick Meier hopes he can recruit enough “digital rangers” to scan the photos and identify animals in the reserve to create an accurate census of the area’s wildlife.

That will give park rangers a better handle on the reserve’s wildlife numbers so they can quickly spot poachers.

Who can be a ranger? Anybody.

That’s the beauty—and possible limitation—of the program, which is a project of the Qatar Computer Research Institute.

“It’s a vast area that the rangers are trying to monitor,” said Meier, “and if we can provide accurate information on where animals are, and where they aren’t, that can go a long way in helping them monitor the animals and better protect them from poaching threats.”

Poaching threatens to extinguish some rhino species within a decade or two, according to Kuzikus Ranger Friedrich Reinhard.

What do you have to do? If you’re on the Wildlife Challenge email list (sign up here), you’ll be sent a link to an Aerial Clicker—the program’s aerial image display tool—on Sept. 26 at noon Namibia time. (The Wildlife Challenge ends on Sept. 28.)

The Aerial Clicker lets you search for animals scattered across the thousands of aerial images taken of the reserve. If you spot one, an “outline tool” allows you to draw around the animal and its shadow (the shadow is important to include, because it helps with identification).

By crowdsourcing the process, rangers hope to get a better idea of how many animals are on the reserve and their location—information they think will help protect wildlife.

But will the Wildlife Challenge also give poachers a new way to find rhinos?


“Poachers won’t stop using technology just because we are ignoring technology,” Reinhard wrote in a National Geographic post. “If we don’t know how many rhinos are left and where they are, how do we know that they are not poached? Rhino monitoring is absolutely essential for conserving them. The trick is not letting poachers know where rhinos are.”

Meier said aerial images that contain rhinos would not include specific location information.

“We will obviously not include the location of rhinos in our wildlife map,” Meier said. “You’ll still be able to look for and trace rhinos, as well as other animals, like ostriches, oryxes, and giraffes.”

If the program works, Meier hopes to run another crowdsourcing challenge in 2015 so rangers can determine how the animals are faring.

Want to search for animals on the Internet (come on, you’re already doing it)? Sign up here and help preserve endangered rhinos. The video below shows how to use the Aerial Clicker.