Defining a “geographic information system” or GIS seems simple until you realize it can be used in an infinite number of ways to explore, communicate, and change the world around us. According to Esri, “it’s a system that creates, manages, analyzes, and maps all types of data.” National Geographic describes GIS in a similar way: “a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface.”
And while this kind of high-level explanation sounds abstract or academic, conservation GIS is grounded in real-world applications that impact the daily lives of both people and wildlife.
In honor of GIS Day – the annual celebration of all things GIS and mapping that happens in the middle of Geography Awareness Week – we’re offering a closer look at how Ramadhani and others at African People & Wildlife (APW) harness the power of this incredible conservation technology to collect geolocation data, share information, and make informed decisions across vast landscapes in northern Tanzania.
Conservation GIS: Technology for Good
There are endless uses for GIS in conservation and environmental management, especially with mobile tools at our fingertips that capture and share data, photos, stories, and more. For Ramadhani Saidi, APW’s GIS Specialist, it’s a living tool that grows and evolves as our teams work across multiple program areas and send him real-time data from the field.
Officers from our Community Teams like Sustainable Rangeland monitors and Warriors for Wildlife constantly submit data about wildlife, ecosystem health, Living Walls, and human-wildlife conflict events. In the past year, our Youth Environmental Education programs and Women’s Beekeeping Initiative have also transferred data collection efforts from paper forms to mobile data collection applications.
On his side of things, Ramadhani ensures that information is collected according to our protocols, sometimes troubleshooting tools and devices, before starting his analyses. These responsibilities only continue to grow as APW expands into new priority landscapes with new communities and team members.
But if there’s one big advantage to GIS, it's that the same tools and apps can be used across all of our programs and landscapes.
Powering Environmental Solutions
Using GIS to drive decision-making wasn’t always as easy as it appears today. Our original data collection tools required a long workflow to make good use of data coming in from the field. Even then, it was more prone to human error and didn’t allow the team to work in real-time. When it comes to human-wildlife conflict, rapid responses are crucial.
These days, however, the team uses a sophisticated combination of Esri’s ArcGIS Online Platform and Esri mobile applications like Survey123, ArcGIS Earth, ArcGIS Collector, and ArcGIS Field Maps. Real-time data collection and analysis is easier than ever and we’ve minimized human errors.
At any given time, a wide range of data flows through into our GIS databases:
- GPS units mark the location of trees where hives are hanging as part of the Women’s Beekeeping Initiative, allowing us to measure areas of pollination influence around each tree and visualize how community lands and wildlife habitat are impacted.
- Rangeland monitors collect monthly pasture quality data with Survey123 from field plots set for monitoring, which provides critical information about natural resources that wildlife, livestock, and humans rely on — especially with a changing climate.
- Warriors for Wildlife also use Survey123 to collect data on big cat observations, livestock depredation events, and other human-wildlife interactions that help us understand and communicate potential hotspots for conflict and where Living Walls are most needed.
- Community Game Scouts use Survey123 during monthly wildlife counts in addition to monitoring done with motion-triggered camera traps that show us the presence and diversity of wildlife in different areas where there’s potential for conflict with livestock.
With the use of GIS technology, it is easy to understand the resources we are protecting. We can effectively allocate conservation efforts to precise areas by identifying the problem hotspots and also species distribution in that area.
Ramadhani Saidi, GIS Specialist
What’s Next? Driving Collaboration & Engagement
APW’s use of GIS technology for wildlife conservation hasn’t gone unnoticed, with a 2020 Special Achievement in GIS (SAG) Award serving as a reminder of how far we’ve come to implement efficient and effective GIS solutions in recent years.
The work hasn’t stopped there. Looking to the future of GIS in our programs, we’re seeking a balance between the science that saves wildlife and the information that supports the well-being of people that live in Africa’s wild places. In the years ahead, we’ll continue to develop tools like interactive GIS dashboards that allow stakeholders to contribute to and access data on complex environmental issues. We’ll soon be launching one of Africa’s first completely integrated, cross-border data collection efforts on human-wildlife conflict.
Translating GIS at the community level is important, too. One of the benefits of APW’s GIS technology stack is the ability to provide access to data and reports anywhere in the world with internet access. We’re building Community Technology Centers (CTCs) in villages where access to, and understanding of, GIS data can improve the lives of Indigenous Peoples – like the Maasai whose livestock are at risk of carnivore attacks. Sharing knowledge about big cat activities is vital to their livelihoods and offers a unique lens through which to view and appreciate the natural world around them.
To build a world where Africa’s people and wildlife coexist and thrive in vibrant, healthy landscapes, we need to create the tools and win-win solutions that make balance possible. Thank you to all of the supporters, partners, and community members who make our programs and geographic information systems possible.
And from the bottom of our hearts (and basemaps), we send a special thank you to Esri for powering our system, donating crucial software, offering technical support and more as we work toward our vision of a world in balance.
Explore More GIS Resources
Want to learn more about the power of GIS? Check out a few of our favorite conservation GIS articles, publications, and online StoryMaps!
- African Conservation Story Maps Collection from Esri
- GIS eBooks from Esri, including GIS in Africa
- GIS Education Resources from National Geographic
- “How Technology Is Advancing Holistic Conservation” via the Esri & The Science of Where Podcast
- Roaring Toward the Future Story Map from African People & Wildlife