Rangelands can generally be defined as ecosystems with natural vegetation that support wildlife or livestock grazing. Common examples include grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, wetlands, and deserts. Rangelands cover nearly 40% of the earth’s land surface, and support a large portion of its human population and biodiversity. However, several factors working in concert have led to widespread degradation of rangeland ecosystems, especially in the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa specifically, 70% of rangelands are considered moderately to severely degraded, characterized by depletion of vegetation cover, encroachment by invasive species, or general loss of surface soil through erosion.
The role of effective and efficient restoration and management in these areas can therefore not be overstated. Given that these ecosystems make up 43% of Africa’s land area and support approximately 45% of its population, restoring, maintaining, and even increasing their productivity is imperative from both conservation and food security standpoints. Consequently, efforts to reverse or mitigate degradation have been implemented at multiple scales, from regional, national, to property level. These efforts are not always evaluated or monitored, and as such useful lessons cannot be easily drawn from them.
In addition to restoration evaluation, there is also a need to simply inventory and monitor ecological resources, in order to measure and track any changes in ecosystem structure or function in response to changing climate and management. Most methods currently in use, however, are not easily understood or justifiable (time and money cost-wise) for use by land managers in community owned rangelands or lower income private ranches. Given the importance of measuring ecological change and a general desire for cheap, quick and easily collectible data, there is need for tools that provide the quantitative ecological information necessary for land managers to make decisions at the local scale, while remaining time and labor cost-efficient enough to facilitate adoption. This is where the Land Potential Knowledge System (LandPKS) suite of mobile phone applications come in handy.
The Global Land-Potential Knowledge System (LandPKS) is a suite of mobile phone applications that was created with the aim of providing simple tools for collecting, storing, and sharing scientific and local knowledge to inform and support decision making for sustainable land management. The LandPKS apps also allow access to global climate, soil, and topography datasets, as well as a cloud-based data storage and access portal. This app allows rapid collection of important rangeland health indicators even by minimally trained assessors.
The initial components of the app are two modules, LandInfo and LandCover. LandInfo was designed to make it as simple as possible for individuals with little or no soils training to collect the information necessary to identify a soil and estimate the potential productivity of a piece of land. It includes screens and tools (e.g. buit-in slope meter) for basic land cover types, slope classes, slope shape, presence of surface salts and vertical cracking, and soil texture by depth (relative amounts of sand, silt, and clay). Where needed, short (10 second) video clips support use by those with limited experience.
LandCover is the digital version of the ‘Stick method’ vegetation data collection method developed by Corinna Riginos and Jeff Herrick. A one meter stick is used to make all the measurements along four, 25m transects, one in each cardinal direction radiating from the plot center. The stick is placed 5 times along each transect at 5 meter intervals, and intercept cover at each point recorded by selecting the appropriate icon on the app. This gives a total of 100 points at each transect, allowing a relatively straightforward calculation of percent foliar, litter, rock, and plant basal cover. The main advantages of the LandCover app over the traditional stick method (paper version), and indeed over other rangeland monitoring systems, are (1) the immediate transmission of results to the data collector (indicators are calculated on the phone prior to upload), and (2) permanent data storage (once upload has occurred). This means that the rangeland coordinators or resource assessors tasked with collecting the data see their data instantly, instead of in weeks and in some cases years.
Rangeland coordinators from Westgate, Kalama, and Naibunga conservancies in Northern Kenya have used this app in the field and expressed preference for using it over the paper based manual data entry method currently in place. This is primarily due to reduced data collection time and quick availability of results. USFS is using it in Ethiopia and several organizations are using it in Namibia for similar reasons. These apps have the potential to provide land managers across Africa (and the world) with a set of tools to help them collect basic information about ecological changes on their landscapes, expanding our ability to share and replicate the best available practices for rangeland restoration and management.