The African continent is filled with an amazingly diverse collection of plant and animal life. The continent is home to more than 50,000 known plant species, 1,000 mammal species, and 1,500 bird species. Traditionally, African societies depended on many of these indigenous species for survival and developed strategies to protect and conserve them for the benefit of their own and future generations. In some cultures, areas that were particularly rich in biodiversity were often designated as sacred groves and protected areas. The accessibility of biodiversity data of the continent with effective quality helps in protecting the region’s diverse fauna and flora to improve the quality of life, improve management of natural systems, sustain human health, and promote economic growth.

Rwanda is located in the Albertine Rift region of Africa, a biodiversity hotspot. However, access to and understanding of the availability of biodiversity data is still very limited in Rwanda. This proposed project will systematically summarise and provide a comprehensive overview of available information on primary biodiversity data of the GBIF database covering Rwanda, and will provide a summary of the status, extent, and coverage of existing information on a particularly important taxonomic group, the vultures, both in Rwanda and across the African continent. This will allow a deep assessment of the status of biodiversity data for a priority taxonomic group. This project builds on prior work done in Rwanda to survey available biodiversity data (the Biodiversity Information Summary of Rwanda, a master’s thesis project completed by Yvette Umurungi at University of Rwanda in 2016). Through the research, Umurungi used data from different institutions including the data from the GBIF online database. She has found that some of GBIF data are not complete especially in geospatial and temporal information fields. This proposed project will use GBIF infrastructure to create an effective workflow to the following data upload, data validation against a geographic mask and a taxonomic authority, and the selection of data for modeling and conservation assessments according to quality. We also select a specific species group (vultures) to focus on which is highly threatened and for which the distribution data has not been systematically assessed in Africa. This work is especially relevant as it is in line with the mission of the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management in Rwanda, and will support improved biodiversity information access needed in the country. The project will facilitate identification of gaps and priorities for biodiversity data needs, and highlight strengths of existing data for the country.

What it does

The main objective is to prepare a summary of the status, extent and coverage of existing biodiversity information on the GBIF database for the country of Rwanda. We will develop preliminary, illustrative analyses of information coverage for at least one taxonomic group across the African continent.

Specific objectives are to:

  1. Determine the completeness and consistency of data coverage for vulture taxonomic group in Africa;
  2. Provide a national view of the coverage and detail of available data for all taxa in Rwanda;
  3. Provide a view of coverage and detail in protected and outside protected areas;
  4. Evaluate the data for one selected species, the Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) to assess confidence in the completeness of coverage for that species.

How I built it and

This project will apply an innovative approach to check on GBIF quality-labeled, up-to-date species occurrence data and environmental niche models for Rwanda’s flora and fauna, both aquatic and terrestrial, including a specific focus on the vulture taxonomic group in Africa. Additionally the study will provide relevant recommendations for data mobilization with GBIF.

This study focuses on biodiversity data available from the GBIF database. In the initial phase, we will download available data of all taxa for Rwanda including for the vulture taxon group in Africa. To this end, we will follow metadata descriptors for biodiversity data resources after Darwin Core fields, which effectively describe the scope and content of biodiversity data resources. This data schema will be implemented as a database in Microsoft Access, with daily backup to cloud storage resources to avoid any potential for data loss. The focus will exclusively be on data records that link individual occurrences of species with dates of occurrences and places of occurrence; these data will be based on the original datasets from specimens in museums or other observations. The study is designed as an ideal that would actually take on the task of assembling, enabling, and improving the biodiversity data available.

Once the initial survey of accessible data has been completed, we will develop preliminary analyses of information coverage for the vulture taxonomic group across the African continent. The taxonomic group is selected based on data richness, and steps to aggregate, organize, compile, and represent the information, testing for intrinsic and extrinsic consistency will be taken (e.g., do the coordinates given in the record concur with the country and state and district listed in the record? Do the environmental characteristics of the site of the record agree well with those of other records of the species?). Such explorations allow detection of errors in the data. Higher-level taxonomic information will be derived from taxonomic authority data. With this ‘cleaned’ version of the data set, we will develop detailed analyses of patterns of species diversity, endemism, complementarity and irreplaceability, representation in protected areas, degree of knowledge, survey gaps, and many other features and facets of biological diversity. For this set of information for detailed analysis, we will reorganize and improve the selected subset taxonomic group via scripts in MySQL and FoxPro, with data models developed in Microsoft Access. The strategy will be to aggregate, organize, compile, and represent the information in such a way as to observe departures from typical patterns that such data should show. Such explorations allow detection of errors in the data, often as outliers from the main data body. Higher-level taxonomic information will be derived from taxonomic authority data.

The team representative is Yvette Umurungi in charge of biodiversity informatics in the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resources, a governmental center located at the University of Rwanda in Butare, Rwanda. The project also benefits from other team members with expertise in the field, in the Rwandan government, and at the University of Rwanda and experts in biodiversity informatics: Dr. Beth Kaplin, of the University of Rwanda and Antioch University New England, USA; Dr. Town Peterson from Kansas University, USA; and John Wieczorek a biodiversity architect from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley.

Challenges I ran into

Some paterns of occurences do not have full information. Gaps and errors in geospatial field were most frequent and very challenging for reseach.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of

The accomplishment of the research of Biodiversity Information Summary of Rwanda for the master's thesis research, I presented it in February 2016. It is an accomplishment that I am proud of.

What I learned

I learnt that there are still a lot to do an biodiversity informatics field especially in Africa. I learnt that it the sustainable development will depend on our present effort to make good decision or catalyse them by giving effective research findings to planners and decision makers.

What's next for Improving biodiversity data in Africa

After the check in with the gaps, we will provide recommendations about the quality of the following data upload, and data would be automatically validated against a geographic mask and a taxonomic authority. Data reviewers will add quality labels to individual data records, allowing selection of data for modeling and conservation assessments according to quality.

Fortunately, the improved data quality will also serve effective environmental niche models for current and future climate scenarios for species especially for more threatened species like vultures. Through the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management we will ensure awareness raising about the status and availability of data for research and policy making. Focusing on the vulture taxonomic group will help to show how easily and reliably it can be integrated or linked with tools, services and/or workflows connected to and GBIF AP for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Vultures are a distinctive, iconic and charismatic component of Africa’s wildlife. As nature's most successful scavengers, they provide critical ecological services. At no financial cost, vultures are the number one natural garbage collectors that keep natural and transformed habitats free of carcasses and hence help to contain the spread of diseases such as rabies, tuberculosis, brucellosis and botulism. Vultures also provide significant value and interest for wildlife tourism. The African continent supports eleven species of vulture, of which eight are confined to the continent. The documented decline of vultures in Africa is catastrophic, with seven formerly abundant species now globally threatened with extinction. Vultures in Africa are facing a complexity of threats including poisoning, harvesting for traditional medicine, declining food availability, habitat degradation, collisions with energy infrastructure and power line electrocutions, and disturbance at breeding sites. There has been a 52% decline over a 30 year period in Gyps vulture numbers in the Masai Mara ecosystem, the most important area for vultures in East Africa. The Hooded vulture, a widespread human commensal, has declined by an average of 62% across Africa over the past four decades, and much more rapidly in some areas.

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