By Linda Poon
When it comes to how human activity has altered animal behavior, this is one of the more glaring examples that’s featured by geographer James Cheshire and visual designer Oliver Uberti in their latest book, Where the Animals Go. In it, they mined the data of nearly 40 studies that used sophisticated technology to track how and where animals migrate, turning raw numbers into a series of stunning maps.
The tale of Zozu comes from a study in which researchers tracked the path of 70 juvenile storks from eight European countries. While the ones from Greece, Poland, and Russia followed the traditional path to the lush wetlands of South Africa, their counterparts from Germany, Spain, and Tunisia shortened their routes and settled for the dumpsters of Morocco, in northern Africa.
Zozu’s story may be unique, but it’s not uncommon as the human population becomes increasingly urban. The popular statistic is that today, over half of the world’s people live in cities—and animals are getting mixed in as well. Rapid urban development means more barriers for animals, and more integration between wildlife and humans.
“Cities have become their homes,” Cheshire says, pointing to the more optimistic cases of fruit bats binging on fruit trees within and outside the border of Accra, Ghana, and fishers thriving in upstate New York by navigating through culverts across town.
Despite proposals to build animal crossings after the fact, over- and underpasses have proven ineffective; they’re rarely used by the big cats. The risks go farther than just ending up as roadkill. The roads themselves become cages for mountain lion populations, isolating various groups and resulting in higher rates of inbreeding. This threatens their growth and survival as a whole.
“In many ways, the damage is already done,” says Uberti. “What you see in Kenya is the counterpoint to that. The human development is nowhere near at the scale of the U.S., but it’s going to be in the coming century.” Before that happens, organizations like Save the Elephants have gone ahead and used GPS collars to track the migration patterns of the surrounding wildlife, collecting the data needed to eventually lobby the government against certain development projects and hunting programs, and for the creation of wildlife reserves and animal crossings.
For example, studying how baboons move as a group can inform us about the crowd behavior of, say, human commuters. And the way researchers tracked landfills as population destinations for migrating storks isn’t too different from how one of his students use geotagged tweets to study the vibrancy of town centers in London. She mined million of tweets from shoppers—just as the stork researchers mined millions of location points—to map where they are traveling from.
What matters most is the quality of the data. “Theres a big difference between data and information,” he says. “We hear a lot about big data in the urban settings, and there’s all this excitement and hype around it. But for it to become information, you have to be able to extract from it important patterns and trends.”
And core of it all, Cheshire writes in the book, “Location is everything.”