Five technologies and innovations helping to protect the Okavango
Scientifically researching a vast expanse of African wilderness takes experience, determination…and some specialist equipment.
National Geographic CreativeWorks
From underwater vessels researching the ocean to satellite mapping of Earth’s little known regions, scientific exploration can now use technology to look before it leaps. Back in 2015, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project carried out its first expedition of the source waters that supply the Okavango Delta–a mammoth wildlife survey across the Angola wilderness. Since then, the project has used vital tools and techniques to discover 52 new species and over 81 species potentially unknown to science, which further helps to build a case for conserving the entire Okavango River system. Now that De Beers has joined National Geographic through their Okavango Eternal partnership, research in this region is accelerating, and new discoveries await. Here are the top five technologies and innovations the partnership is using to help to explore the waters of the Okavango…
To understand how changes in the source waters could affect the Okavango Delta, scientists need to be able to detect subtle changes and compare them over time. Okavango Eternal has begun to place water-monitoring stations along the rivers that flow through Angola, Namibia and Botswana into Delta. Each station is attached to a piece of infrastructure or bridge that crosses the water. A probe measures water quality and the volume of water that flows through it every hour. A weather station measures rainfall. Once all nine stations have been installed, they will provide a unique picture of the river’s hydrology. A separate device called the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler allows scientists collect “spot measurements”, which are taken at various points in the river to track changes in water volume. The device is pulled along the river and measures water velocity to calculate the volume of water moving through the river. Scientists and others who depend on the annual flooding of Delta can access this information through an open-source app. This allows them to make informed decisions at both the local and national level.
Environmental DNA (eDNA)
Conducting wildlife surveys has always presented a problem for biologists. The environmental consequences of physically capturing living organisms can be severe. It is also possible to miss smaller or more obscure species. eDNA is a way to make it easier for such difficult species. This technique works by living things leaving trace as they move through space. These traces can be excreted or broken down skin, hair, or scales. These traces can then be found in random environmental samples and the DNA extracted. The species that left them behind can then be identified. The technique also works in water, as the DNA of aquatic creatures can be detected at very low concentrations, with viable elements able to last for up to 21 days in the wild. To capture genetic material, scientists only need to push a sample of riverwater through a fine filter. The water is then sent to a laboratory to be identified. eDNA is a valuable tool for assessing the wild. It is faster and more affordable than traditional sequencing.
Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite internet
We all know the frustration of having no phone or internet signal when carrying out our daily lives, but in the Angola wilderness, the team has no standard connectivity for weeks at a time. Fortunately, BGAN satellite technology offers a vital connection with the outside world. These small, laptop-sized devices connect directly to a satellite before transmitting a WiFi signal to which the expedition can connect their phones. The BGAN system has revolutionized the management of these expeditions. It allows them to upload their collected data at the end each day, eliminating the need to store it on fragile hard drives and risking losing once-in a lifetime discoveries. BGAN is essential for team members to communicate with their families and keep project base informed about their progress. Based on daily updates, the project can organize resupplies and emergency assistance.
Smartphones and apps
The method of collecting data on an expedition has evolved massively over the decades. Everything is now in the reach of scientists, from paper and pencil to specialist software. Scientists in the field have seen their lives transformed by smartphones. They can now capture data quickly and efficiently. For quick snaps of wildlife, teams can have their phones at hand to capture lightning-fast images. These images can be geotagged with precise locations and then added to the database by using an app. The need for expensive satellite GPS units is also gone. Team members can now download satellite images and use their phones to orient themselves.
In the last 10 years, drones have decreased in size so that an expedition can now carry one along without having to worry about space or weight. Multirotor stabilization allows drones to be thrown from a canoe and captured while moving along a river. The drones also have built-in cameras that allow the team to survey the area ahead. Drones are invaluable in mapping topography in areas where scientifically little is known. The drones can be used to map out the topography and identify potential dangers. They also help document the landscape’s condition to support conservation efforts. They can also identify potential biodiversity hotspots. Drones are essential for storytelling on these expeditions. National Geographic photographers can update social networks with stunning aerial photos that capture the wonder of places almost unknown to the rest of the world.
Find out more about how De Beers creates positive impacts here.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.