One of the biggest tourist attractions in South Africa — and Africa as a whole — is its sprawling wildlife. However valuable this attraction may be, its sustainability is questionable. Just take the rapid rise in illegal poaching as an example. With some clever technological solutions at hand, perhaps social media and crowdsourcing could help inject a fresh sense of modernity to this cherished industry.
Tracking the Wild is a platform that encourages Africa’s parks and reserves to capture and share wildlife sightings with like-minded enthusiasts, while making a valuable contribution to conservation.
It has a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, the system acts as a social media platform: people find information about accommodation and share their experiences. On the other, the platform collects valuable crowdsourced conservation data in order to contribute with wildlife research.
“Some of South Africa’s reserves still use paper-based sightings logs for collecting rare sightings data from the public,” explains Natalie White, who together with her husband John White, founded Tracking the Wild.
Users simply download the free app (available on Android and iOS) in order to log and find wildlife hotspots as well as book their accommodation at one of the 40 national parks and game reserves across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
“We feed all sightings data to researchers at the University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit and they then use the information to understand the distribution, and change in distribution, of species throughout Africa,” explains Natalie.
She elaborates that because of the sensitivity regarding this data, standard social media platforms are not designed for capturing wildlife sightings:
Our platform has been built to exclude rhino sightings as well as restrict the location information for any species whose safety could be jeopardised by its location being made public. This can be done on a park-by-park and individual species basis.
Here’s how it works:
After studying at Stellenbosch University, receiving his MBA at the University of Cape Town and several years of banking and consultancy experience under his belt, John is following his entrepreneurial heart, which fits in neatly with his passion for Africa’s wildlife.
Natalie, on the other hand, hails from the United Kingdom and spent over six years as a marketing agency account manager before starting her own business as a graphic designer.
The couple has self-funded Tracking the Wild and valuates their total investment at about R2-million. The startup is on the look-out for its first round of funding later this year though in order to further expand its selection of parks and reserves and boost advertising.
Based in Cape Town, the couple notes that the location is key to its extremely valuable for its business to grow. They say that the Mother City is a hub for tech startups, meaning there’s a lot of like-minded people to meet and learn from. “For a startup business it is extremely valuable to be able to use freelancers rather than having to support the overhead of employing someone with the skills they are seeking.”
The platform is generating revenue from accommodation sales and the private reserves that have signed up to be added to the platform. “However, because our business model relies on a large user base to generate revenue, our main focus is currently directed at growing our user base,” notes Natalie. “We expect to break even in about two years’ time.”
The couple feels that researchers do not engage with the public enough. “Researchers ask the public for data but fail to feed any of the interesting results back to the public to keep them interested and involved,” Natalie argues. “This one way flow of information discourages the public from getting involved. At Tracking the Wild, we have built a platform with the intention to engage and involve the public in a way that encourages longer term involvement.”
The Android app was launched back in February 2014 followed by the iOS version in November.
Natalie says that they have had a really positive response from both the site and apps. “Since launching our website and Android app, we have almost 5 000 unique users on Android, and about 7 600 unique users on our website. Our iPhone app currently has almost 500 unique users.” It does have bigger, global ambitions however.
“We believe that the concept of Tracking the Wild can be replicated on a global scale — our backend platform has been design with this in mind — and it is our intention to introduce the platform to countries outside of Africa,” says Natalie.
“The goal is to enrich people’s wildlife experiences and raise awareness of our world’s wild places through sustainable tourism,” Natalie envisions. “Tracking the Wild’s belief is that our wilderness can only be protected when people have the opportunity experience its beauty and contribute towards its preservation.”