TAKING GIS INTO THE WILD: TEACHING GIS TO PRACTICING INTERNATIONAL CONSERVATION BIOLOGISTS
Karen Willett and Eric Sanderson
Over the past 10 years, the use of GIS as an analytical and visualization tool for conservation purposes has experienced dramatic growth. As a conservation application, GIS has been used for population estimates of forest elephants, planning nature reserves, evaluating management scenarios in space and time, and range-wide priority setting for tigers and jaguars. Increases in the use of GIS applications have been caused by improvements in software and hardware that make GIS easier to use and cost less. Easier use and affordable cost allows some small nonprofit organizations and even individual scientists and researchers to have access to a tool that was primarily only accessible to large agencies and experts(primarily the government). Due to the improvements seen today, analysis with GIS is accessible to most ecologists, land managers, and conservationists (even those who work out of the country). Because GIS has become more useful to researchers and conservationists it is being brought out to those who work out in the field, in particular the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)(Founded in 1895 as the NY Zoological Society headquartered at NYC Bronx Zoo, works to save wildlife and wild lands around the world). The Geographic Information and Analysis Program of the WCS consists of a landscape ecologist, a GIS Analyst, GIS interns, postdoctoral associates, and 300 supporting field biologists practicing conservation in over 50 countries. The program is dedicated to supporting landscape ecology, and geographic analysis including GIS, remote sensing and GPS. The goal of most scientific conservation efforts is to apply information to influence anthropogenic impact natural resources. Data collected by conservation biologists is usually spatially explicit, meaning where the population is observed, where the park boundary is located, and which village is closest. This data is often collected in remote and rural areas but it needs to be communicated quickly in order to help wildlife and wild lands. While training conservation scientists about GIS, it’s been noted that although GIS instructional books and textbooks are easy to understand they can sometimes give unrealistic impressions of how GIS is actually utilized. Tutorials make the use of GIS seem a lot easier than it is in reality when conduction real spacial analyses. In order to effectively use GIS, field scientists need to possess a core set of ideas, vocabulary, and skills attained from literature on spatial analysis techniques. This set of ideas can also be acquired from geography, geodetics, computer science and landscape ecology. The WCS helps scientists acquire GIS skills be providing workshops twice a year in New York, and in different countries that they may be conducting research on. Their curriculum is focused on vocabulary and operations such as raster vs. vector, spatial primitives, spatial data layers and associated data tables, map projections, scale, and other compete at the center of GIS applications. Other topics such as the importance of metadata and the use of remote sensing is also taught. Other than language barriers, some challenges that WCS have encountered while teaching field researchers is that they come to their lessons with preconceived ideas about GIS that are untrue. One such misconception is that “doing research in a carpeted and air-conditioned room will be less frustrating than their field work”(Willett, "Ecology 101: Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America", 2000), others think that GIS is “primarily a tool to print big, pretty maps”(Willett, "Ecology 101: Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America", 2000). GIS is a tool for comprehending and analyzing spatial information, not just an art tool.
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Willett, K., & Sanderson, E. (2000). TAKING GIS INTO THE WILD: TEACHING GIS TO PRACTICING INTERNATIONAL CONSERVATION BIOLOGISTS. Ecology 101: Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.