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Some say smartphones and even cameras should be avoided when interacting with nature, yet certain devices may enhance visitor experiences. By Anisha Dayaram

As conservationists, we sometimes have an old-school interpretation of proper park etiquette, a romantic notion of being naturalists and adventurers without gadgets. Yet new technologies bring value to both conservation and the tourism industry.

Instead, 76 per cent of visitors to the waterhole used some form of technology during their stop…
– Anisha Dayaram

In the future, park infrastructure may well be designed to encourage visitors to use technology. The nature of most modern work means that many of us spend vast amounts of time behind a computer, cellphone and tablet screen in our urban environments. New apps for entertainment, cheap communication and the cheaper prices of photographic and other optical equipment mean these technologies also pervade our leisure time.

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In January I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in the Kruger National Park as a student of the Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative/Nsasani Trust on a field course along with 12 Australian students. A few of us decided to conduct a short investigation in an attempt to better understand people’s engagement with technology in nature. We spent a day measuring how tourists interfaced with devices such as smartphones, tablets, cameras and binoculars at a waterhole in Kruger.

We expected that an overwhelming percentage of people observing their surroundings with the naked eye would immerse themselves in the joy and tranquillity of their experience and, consequently, would spend more time at the waterhole. Instead, 76 per cent of visitors to the waterhole used some form of technology during their stop and those using a device spent over four times longer at the waterhole. Camera users spent the longest time, followed by those using binoculars. Surprisingly few used cellular devices.

Recent studies challenge the popular view that smart devices impede our connection to nature. Sure, it is a challenge to capture the natural light and colour contrasts of the wilderness, but that does not make our interaction and communion with nature any less valid. Smart devices have many benefits, not least that they provide easy access to information and can be a means of navigation.

X marks the spot

Should apps alert park visitors to sightings? SANParks discourages the use of mobile applications that share sightings as they have found these tend to induce an unhealthy sense of eagerness, which can entice visitors to break park rules. “As an organisation, we appreciate the fact that technology has evolved and that guests are taking advantage of it, however, this is compromising the values of good game viewing. We are exploring legal mechanisms to curtail the use of sightings apps,” said Hapiloe Sello, Managing Executive: Tourism Development and Marketing.

Did you know?

Research has shown childhood contact with wild surroundings fosters a deeper adult connection with wild spaces. The amount of time spent has a greater influence than the size of a natural area visited.

*The Skukuza Science Leadership Initiative/Nsasani Trust is an environmental education trust based in the Kruger National Park providing courses thatencourage cross-learning exchanges between various international universities and South African students. For details, contact [email protected] or visit their Facebook page.
*Featured picture by Shutterstock.

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