What's Going On?

Games build guide capacity in Rwanda

Isak Herman, May, 2020

A guide walks through the forest, a parabolic flower-like lattice of laser-cut wood and plastic petals hanging from his belt, an old android smartphone attached with rubber bands where the flower’s pistil or stamen would extend. A streaky seedeater (Crithagra striolatus) trills from a tree, the guide raises the parabola, selects an icon on the phone, and begins to record.

Upon returning from the forest, the guide uploads new recordings to the eBird database, managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and a new database record is created. In local schools, children play a series of simple smartphone games utilizing the guide’s recordings. Games are designed to teach recognition of local avifauna by both sound and sight for training the next generation of guides.

Rwanda, best known for its great apes, is home to 704 species of birds, at last count [1]. Recording this complete list remains a work in progress. While birdwatching is a significant driver of conservation tourism globally, it has been historically under-developed in Rwanda as the countries of the Northern Albertine Rift have focused on gorilla tourism. In the USA, over four percent of total spending on outdoor recreation is on birdwatching activities [2]; in Rwanda spending is negligible despite valuable avian biodiversity.

In 2009 the then Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Tourism (now the Ministry of Trade and Industry) published its tourism policy plan for the coming decade [3]. Heretofore, gorilla trekking was the country's primary tourism product and accounted for the majority of tourism-related income. With the goal of tourism product diversification, the Rwandan government proposed strengthening birdwatching along with agro-tourism, adventure, and other products [4]. Sadly, birdwatching tourism has seen virtually no growth over the past decade and is not once mentioned in the Rwanda Development Board’s 2017 annual report [5]. Failure to develop birdwatching tourism has stemmed primarily from the fact that Rwanda has few trained guides with the requisite knowledge to enhance offerings for tourists.

The current state of technology for sharing and learning about avian recordings in Rwanda revolves around a WhatsApp group for local avian enthusiasts and those who would like to become guides. A new collaboration, under the auspices of Planet Birdsong (PBS), a United Kingdom (UK) based non-profit focused on birdsong and education, has identified this shortcoming and developed a set of technological solutions. Overarching project goals involve building community knowledge through education in village schools and developing guide capacity. Ancillary project benefits include developing the potential of local citizen scientists who collect data using georeferenced mobile games and contribute their collected recordings of Rwandan birds to global datasets.

PBS has partnered with two conservation technology companies to build a novel system for recording and learning about Rwanda’s birds. Time and Space Learning, a UK-based alternative education organization focusing on overcoming barriers to learning, has developed a low-cost parabolic reflector for recording. The design utilizes flat-pack laser-cut parts that are inexpensive, easily replaced, and unlikely to be repurposed in a resource-poor environment. Bioacoustic Gaming Systems is a US-based game studio developing hyper-local birdsong training games for Android mobile devices. They specialize in interaction designs which develop citizen scientists’ knowledge in order to increase the volume of data uploaded to global datasets in historically under-represented regions.

Preliminary testing in the forests and villages of Rwanda and further afield has led to iterative implementations of these novel technologies. In the near term, the PBS project will be returning to the National Parks of Rwanda with the tools necessary to validate knowledge development amongst local guides and engage prospective tourists with Rwanda’s diverse avian populations.

[1] Vande Weghe, J. P., & Vande Weghe, G. R. (2011). Birds in Rwanda: an atlas and handbook. Rwanda Development Board, Kigali.
[2] Yarnold, D. (2017, Summer). Politicians Are Offering a False Choice Between Nature and the Economy. The Audubon Society Magazine. Retrieved from here.
[3] Republic of Rwanda Ministry of Trade and Industry (2009). Rwanda tourism policy. Epublication retrieved from here.
[4] Nielsen, H., & Spenceley, A. (2011). The success of tourism in Rwanda: Gorillas and more. Yes Africa Can: Success stories from a dynamic continent, 231-249.
[5] Rwanda Development Board (2018). Rwanda development board 2017 annual report. Epublication retrieved from here.