November 7, 2007

Colloquium Speaker: Sky Alibhai and Zoe Jewell

Sky Alibhai and Zoe Jewell Sky Alibhai grew up in Uganda, where, in his words, he had the dubious honor of receiving his first degree from the infamous Ugandan President and dictator Idi Amin. Sky lived to tell the tale and went on to take a D.Phil. at Oxford University. He lectured in Zoology at London University for 16 years before throwing in the security of a steady job to study the black rhino, in Zimbabwe. Zoe Jewell grew up in England, took a Zoology degree at London University, a masters in Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a degree in veterinary medicine at Cambridge University. Shortly after qualification the same fate befell her; she was lured away from a steady career, ostensibly temporarily, by the exciting prospect of studying the black rhino in Zimbabwe. Together, they wanted to go and do the same things, and the Zimbabwean department of immigration recommended it, so they got married! They set up Rhinowatch, to census and monitor a large population of black rhino in a very remote part of Zimbabwe, at the height of the poaching problems. They literally worked under fire at times, found themselves being pinned to trees by the ungrateful subjects of their study and had to dodge lion and hyena who would follow behind them, sometimes after dark, waiting for a meal opportunity. But this kind of pressure sometimes kindles ideas, and out of it all was borne WildTrack, and the footprint identification technique, FIT.

Colloquium Topic: WildTrack: A Synergy of Wild Beasts, Ancient Tracking Skills and Modern Techniques for Footprint Identification

It has been and still remains one of the most challenging issues in wildlife conservation - how to count individuals of endangered species and determine their distribution accurately. As basic as it seems, such information forms the very foundation of potentially effective conservation policies for many endangered species. The first step required is to identify individuals. Where individual animals (or humans) leave clear footprints, a wealth of information is potentially available about that individual. The challenge is how to harvest that information. It was only when we began working with indigenous trackers in Zimbabwe and Namibia, that we realized they were often able to identify individual rhino from their footprints. We wondered if it would be possible, using modern technology, to take the image in the mind's eye of a tracker and distil it down to numbers and graphics effectively? In this presentation we describe how we create a geometric profile of a digital image of a footprint; how we accurately discriminate between the footprints of different species and individuals, and to help classify them according to gender and age. We call the technique the Footprint Identification Technique (FIT). We also discuss future development plans for FIT; how it can be made widely accessible to a range of users, and other potential applications of the technique. Our vision is now to extend the range of FIT, to make it accessible as a one-stop tool to a wide range of potential users, from wildlife biologists to amateur naturalists to forensic scientists, with the help of experts in other fields.