Learning to use iNaturalist to discover the world of biodiversity on our doorstep

#MURANGWA Darius 21-05-2021

Organised by collaboration between a former BSc student from UR and the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), with funding from the National Geographic Society (NGS), a training on the use of iNaturalist took place on 17-18 May 2021 at Huye campus. There was a one day in-class session on understanding iNaturalist and one day for going outside to collect data (mainly pictures) on all species observed (e.g. plants, animals, birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles). More than 20 people including Bachelor students from Forestry, Agroforestry (CAVM) and from Conservation biology options (CST) and CoEB staff participated.

First day practice on how to take a good photo for identification

Prof. Beth Kaplin, the Director of CoEB explained that Huye campus and the Arboretum of Ruhande forest are excellent places for University of Rwanda students to practice what they learn in the classroom from Biology and Forestry courses, and she said that iNaturalist is a good platform for lecturers and students to learn more about taxonomy and data analyses. “We are going to build our capacity to use iNaturalist and connect it to our work with biodiversity data, and use these great outdoor labs available to us” Prof. Beth Kaplin.

Providence Akayezu, a National Geographic Explorer and Faculty at the African Leadership University (ALU) developed the concept for this training and was one of the trainers focused on the functionality of iNaturalist.

Learning about iNaturalist and citizen science, the importance of connecting humans to nature, and a half day BioBlitz in the Arboretum of Ruhande were the main events in this training. “BioBlitz is project created on iNaturalist for having a snapshot of biodiversity of a particular area in a particular set of time” Chloé Cipolletta said. Chloé Cipolletta is a Program Director of National Geographic Society, East Africa Fund.

iNaturalist is a global online platform that allows users to collect species data from the field and upload online, and this information helps scientists for research purposes ; for instance on species occurrences and habitats. It is a space for social networking where people share biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature and track disrtibution. New species have been discovered on iNaturalist simply from individuals posting photos of species they observe around them ; the community of taxon experts on iNaturalist helps to identify those species. This powerful tool can also be integrated into classroom teaching in biology, ecology, taxonomy, and data manipulation courses to help students get practical experience.

Participants in the training pose for a group photo

iNaturalist.org is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, and it has a physical office in San Francisco, USA.
iNaturalist network is still growing and many countries are eager to become members. As of September 20, 2020, iNaturalist has more than 50 million records of biodiversity with photos and sounds to allow verification by the community. Learn about this app on this website, and register to join the network : https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/about.

In Rwanda, the (CoEB) hosted at the University of Rwanda is an ideal place to start with building capacity, as the students, teachers and researchers can acquire skills on using iNaturalist and further transfer the message to other students in different generations at the University. Furthermore, the CoEB is involved in a number of projects to map biodiversity data for Rwanda, including the Rwanda Biodiversity Information System (https://rbis.ur.ac.rw/) and by using iNaturalist, species data can be available online and accessible to scientists who want to use them. iNaturalist will also create a foundation for future citizen science activities in Rwanda.

Story by Joselyne Barakagwira
Coordinator of Education & Awareness Raising/CoEB