Project Description

The Kids Twiga Tally: Creating Young Conservation Scientists in Kenya

March 17, 2016 | Paula Kahumbu | The Guardian

Paula Kahumbu: Counting giraffes, using the latest image identification software, fires children’s interest in science and wildlife conservation

In 1984, E.O. Wilson wrote about ‘biophilia’, the notion that humans have an instinctive bond with other living systems and vice versa. It explains why nature tourism is such a rapidly growing global business, and why millions of people around the world raised a huge public outcry after the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe and Satao the elephant in Kenya.

This notion suggests that the loss of wildlife species and the degradation of valuable ecosystems could be reversed if we re-establish the direct connections between people and nature that have been lost in the modern, urbanized world.

Kenya has a proud tradition of citizen involvement in wildlife conservation. Wildlife Clubs have played a key role in developing a culture of conservation among young people. However, they have been unable to keep up with the expansion of schools and most children in Kenya today are growing up with very little understanding of nature.

Our efforts to save the country’s spectacular wildlife heritage will depend on our success in reconnecting young people and nature, to make wildlife conservation the concern of every student.

One of the best ways of arousing children’s interest in an issue or problem is to involve them in finding the solution. This was our thinking when we invited school children aged from 10 to 13 to the Mpala Research Centre to count reticulated giraffe in the rangelands of Laikipia County. We called the event the Kids Twiga Tally. Twiga means giraffe in Kiswahili.

The high plains of Laikipia harbour a wealth of wildlife, which has thrived in part due to innovative management approaches developed by private landholders that combine cattle ranching and wildlife conservation. Giraffes are endemic to Africa and the reticulated giraffe is today found only in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. We only have crude estimates of the giraffe population numbers: these suggest there are about 140,000 giraffes in total across Africa, of which about 25% are reticulated giraffe.

The Kids Twiga Tally was organised by the NGO WildlifeDirect, the Mpala Research Centre, the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, scientists from Princeton and Columbia Universities, and researchers developing the Image Based Ecological Identification System (IBEIS).

The idea of giving children the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to science had been mooted by children themselves just months earlier at a workshop held at Brookhouse School in Nairobi. The 350 young participants were invited to discuss ‘How we together can create a generation of wildlife warriors in Kenya’. Hundreds of suggestions were made, but one that popped out was to make trips to wildlife areas an opportunity to “do something meaningful”.

It resonated with us because earlier in the year we had invited the public to join us in a two-day photographic survey of zebras in Nairobi National Park. Typically, visitors to the park take zebras for granted, as an element of the landscape, and concentrate on searching for more ‘prized’ animals such as lions and rhinos. After a few hours, the 80 participants had become extremely passionate about zebras and spoke excitedly about watching them feed, groom, play and even mate.

The survey made use of IBEIS, a new digital technology that allows identification of individual animals in a herd of thousands animals that—superficially—all look the same. IBEIS can read zebra stripes like a bar code and distinguish individuals from each other to create a database of individual animals in the population. It can also read the markings on many other species, including giraffe.

In addition to a wide range of ecological applications, IBEIS offers exciting new opportunities for ordinary citizens, equipped with nothing more than a camera, to contribute to science (to find out more about IBEIS click here).

Following the success in Nairobi National Park, further zebra counts were organised in other parts of the country during 2015 and 2016. At these events we noticed that children often commandeered their parent’s cameras and this alerted us to the potential of IBEIS as a classroom tool. We thought this could be a powerful way to get children hooked on nature.

On 4 March children from 8 primary schools from a range of backgrounds arrived at the Mpala Research Centre. Some were pupils at high-end elite schools, while others came from urban slums and rural pastoralist communities. They had volunteered to take part in the count because of their interest in topics such as technology and photography, or simply attracted by the prospect of the adventure of an overnight trip.

On arrival we held a briefing session where we encouraged the children to describe their interests and talk about giraffes. We didn’t tell the children anything about giraffes. Instead, we invited them to write their questions down on a whiteboard and try to work out the answers for themselves. Just five of the students said they were interested in science and only a handful of questions were asked.

However the children did display some knowledge of conservation issues: They predicted that there would be more giraffe on protected conservancies than in the poorly managed, degraded landscapes of collectively-owned group ranches.

The next day we trained the 70 school children in using GPS-enabled cameras. Then we split them up into mixed groups, before letting them loose in the company of the scientists and students from the universities. Each vehicle had 2 or 3 cameras and the job of the children on board was take photos of giraffes.

Spotting giraffe is not as easy as you might think, but the children had incredible eyesight. They directed drivers to giraffes they spotted in the distance and, since we were on private land, vehicles could go off road to get closer.

While looking for giraffe the children also saw elephants, leopard, wild dogs, impalas, kudu, plains and Grevy’s zebra and many other species. Some children watched hippos; others examined whistling thorn acacias, where they discovered that what looked like fruit pods were in fact ant homes, full of young larvae, not seeds. They were fascinated to learn that the tiny but fierce biting cocktail ants were tolerated by the trees because they attacked browsing animals, including giraffe.

At the end of the day our combined efforts had produced over 1300 photographs of giraffes, as well as photos of many other species. The children gathered at the research centre and played a game of manually pairing photos of giraffes on just 8 cards. It took the winning team 15 minutes to figure out the pairs.

Then we showed them how the computer running IBEIS could do it much more quickly. The exercise left the children in awe and a flood of questions followed. By the end of the day the children knew what giraffes ate, how long they lived, how much they weighed and who their predators were.

All 70 children said they wanted to be scientists, and most said they did not want to go home or that they wanted to come back again. They said they loved the day out. They enjoyed seeing all the animals, talking to scientists, and meeting and interacting with children from other schools.

The students and Mpala Research Centre scientists repeated the count on Day 2 to allow for the sight–resight analysis. This uses the identification of individuals animals made possible by IBEIS to estimate population numbers.

Imagine that 100 individual giraffe are seen on Day 1 and 100 giraffe are seen on Day 2. The population can be estimated from the proportion of repeated sightings. If only half of the zebras seen on Day 1 are resighted on Day 2, then the total population is 200, twice the number seen on Day 1. This method is a much more accurate way of estimating population numbers of animals than total count methods.

First results of the survey indicate that, as expected, more giraffes are found on conservancies, where wildlife conservation is a management priority. Further analysis of the data will enable scientists to assess the sex ratios and age structure of the giraffe population, and whether these differ on the conservancies and group ranches.

The detailed information collected by the survey will contribute to planning conservation, working with communities, and improving understanding of animal behaviour in our rapidly changing world.

Counting the giraffe of Laikipia could be done multiple ways. We could have hired a student to go out and count the giraffe. It would have taken much longer and, like so much research in Kenya, only a few people would have been engaged and informed. Citizen science hands over ownership of the process and the results to society at large.

The Kids Twiga Tally showed how doing real science is a powerful magnet for engaging children’s minds. Moreover, coverage on social media allowed thousands more people to join the Tally vicariously. Many other schools have expressed an interest in participating in future activities.

We hope that the Tally will be just the start of something much bigger, unleashing the power of children to change the future of Kenya. Laikipia Wildlife Forum has started a programme called Wild Classrooms for Laikipia children, in which local conservation clubs visit conservancies and conduct citizen science projects.

The Mpala Research Centre sponsors conservation clubs, and has a live cam which can be used as a virtual class room by students all over Kenya—and the world. WildlifeDirect is developing a system that enables schools nationwide to use parks and wilderness areas as outdoor classrooms for any subject (click here to read about our day out with school children in Amboseli National Park).

Citizen science using software like IBEIS has the potential to transform public attitudes. We hope it will lead people to demand cleaner cities and less polluting industries, and insist that planners and policy makers take more account of environmental issues.

The Kids Twiga Tally: school children taking part in a giraffe count in Laikipia County, Kenya, March 2016. Photograph: WildlifeDirect

 Reticulated giraffe in Laikipia County, Kenya. Photograph: WildlifeDirect

The Kids Twiga Tally, as it happened. The image shows Dr. Daniel I Rubenstein of Princeton University with children who participated in the event.

School children learning to use cameras in preparation for the Kids Twiga Tally, a count of giraffes in Laikipia County, Kenya, March 2016. Photograph: WildlifeDirect

On safari during the Kids Twiga Rally. Giraffe count in Laikipia County, Kenya, March 2016. Photograph: WildlifeDirect

Sorting out the photos at the Kids Twiga Tally. The photo shows Paula Kahumbu with children who participated in the event. Photograph: WildlifeDirect

“This is what we saw!” Children discuss their sightings in the field during the Kids Twiga Rally. Photograph: WildlifeDirecgt th children who participated in the event. Photograph: WildlifeDirect