THE REAL THING: A San hunter demonstrates his skills at the launch of SANDA Security, a company that aims to preserve the bushmen's legendary skills as wildlife trackers.

Anthropologist Louis Liebenberg has always been fascinated by the way in which our brains have evolved in response to increasing technological challenges.

His particular interest is in the hunting and tracking skills of San hunters in the Kalahari desert.

Did the development of tactical and strategic skills associated with tracking and hunting eventually lead to the development of a brain that could do sophisticated mathematics and physics?

To test this idea, he taught himself the basics of animal tracking, and from 1985 spent 11 years learning from San master hunters, living and hunting with them for lengthy periods in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park.

His book The Art of Tracking traces the origins of tracking as a science, and provides a masterly overview of their indigenous knowledge systems and the practical ways in which they are applied. But Liebenberg wanted to go one step further – to record the knowledge of San trackers in such a way that it could be used in the field to track game and learn more about wildlife behaviour and management.

In 1996, after experimenting with a variety of technologies, he and a colleague, Justin Steventon, struck on the idea of the CyberTracker, a hand-held palmtop computer with a built-in GPS.

Instead of recording data in text, they decided to use icons and pictograms for data capture. The kind of information that is stored includes species sightings, location, habitat, numbers of individuals in a herd, feeding behaviour and territorial markings. Screen designs can also combine text and icons for optimum efficiency.

The data can be downloaded from the CyberTracker via infrared beaming to a PC. The locations fixed using the GPS make it possible to print out maps showing the movements of individuals and herds. The icon graphic user interface makes it possible for non-literate but skilled trackers to enter geo-referenced observations in the field. It is also useful for scientists and conservationists to capture data quickly without having to write text.

Furthermore, the CyberTracker Screen Designer makes it possible for users to design their own Electronic Field Guides with Species Identification Filters. These filters consist of a sequence of screens each with a checklist of characteristic features of a species.

The CyberTracker Electronic Field Guide allows the user to imbed definitions, descriptions and images into the data capture screen sequence, providing an immediate reference for easy validation of field observations.

The CyberTracker Field Map feature makes it possible to navigate using a PDA/GPS to track the path of the user in real time.

A green cross-hair shows the user’s position while a yellow line shows the path followed.

CyberTracker data can be viewed in tables, maps and graphs. Map views include Microsoft Virtual Earth, Google Earth, ESRI Shape File map layers, or Image maps. The Photo Views allow you to attach photos to specific data points.

CyberTracker has been used throughout the world. It proved pivotal in pinpointing gorilla mortalities from Ebola fever in the Congo. “On analysing CyberTracker data, it was discovered that chimpanzees, duikers and bush pigs were also killed by the deadly virus. The true extent of Ebola would never have been known had it not been for the this programme.”

CyberTracker is now widely regarded as the most efficient way to gather large quantities of data for field observations at a speed and level of detail that was not possible before. Its software is distributed free on www.cybertracker.org and has been downloaded in more than 40 countries.

l Professor Mike Bruton is director of Imagineering at MTE Studios, Cape Town, (www.mtestudios.com) and the Science Centre’s founding director - Cape Argus