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Citizen Science

Les Underhill
Animal Demography Unit

Have you ever wished you could be a research scientist helping to conserve our wildlife, but you don't have a formal degree or any scientific training? At the University of Cape Town's Animal Demography Unit (ADU) there is a menagerie of projects to choose from, providing citizen scientists (or volunteers) the opportunity to get outdoors and collect valuable data for science and conservation. It's easy to become involved and it's a lot of fun.

The ADU is a leader in atlas projects in South Africa. It all began 21 years ago when fieldwork started for the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1). It ran for five years, ending in 1992 and produced the first comprehensive atlas of bird distributions for southern Africa. Thousands of citizen scientists enthusiastically provided over 100 000 checklists for SABAP1. The maps produced have subsequently been used in recent bird field guides and the seventh edition of Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa. Bird distributions have changed in the last two decades, but how much have they changed and what implications does this have for bird biodiversity conservation?

SABAP2 was launched on 1 July 2007, covering South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. SABAP2 has been refined to collect more detailed information on bird distributions, and submission of data is mainly electronic. Currently there are 2183 active registered atlasers.

The Southern African Frog Atlas Project (SAFAP) was launched in 1995. This project was completed in 2003 and a Frog Red Data Book and Atlas were published soon thereafter. 420 citizen scientists submitted data towards SAFAP.

The Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment (SARCA) was launched in 2005, ending in March 2009. SARCA is a partnership between the ADU and the SANBI. Twenty experts have freely given of their time and knowledge to compile up-to- date assessments of 422 recognised species and subspecies of reptiles according to IUCN standards. This has taken the form in an Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

The Southern African Butterfly Conservation Assessment (SABCA) was launched in April 2007, ending in 2011. SABCA had similar aims to SARCA, producing the Conservation Assessment of Butterflies of South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland: Red List Atlas

SAFRING is based at the ADU and provides bird ringing services in South Africa and other African countries. This entails providing ringing equipment to qualified ringers, and curating all ringing data.

If you'd rather count than ring birds, get into your car and join CAR (Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts). The CAR project, coordinated by the ADU, monitors trends in populations and habitat use of over 30 species of bird.

How about counting waterbirds at the many wetlands around our country? If you are interested, then the Coordinated Waterbird Counts Project, CWAC for short, is for you! The CWAC project started in 1992 is still going strong.

Each data point the ADU's citizen scientists collect is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of biodiversity. The ADU's mission is to fit together all the puzzle pieces, so that we can map South Africa's biodiversity through time. We turn the myriad bits of raw data into the kind of information that conservation decisions can be based on. As a member of the public, you no longer need to be an "activist" to contribute to conservation, you can be a citizen scientist, contributing your pieces to the jigsaw. If you're a budding citizen scientist or looking for new projects to join, consider joining the ADU projects, to help us get the bigger picture.