Fundamentals of Citizen Science, a BDI course

Is it Citizen Science, or Citizen Science or Citizen Science? Where you place the emphasis matters. In Citizen Science, the value of an observer is only based on the scientific data they collect. Effectively, they are eyes on matchsticks. Citizen Science drifts towards the realm of social media, with a biodiversity theme, but the data tends to get lost. The BDI places equal emphasis on the value of the data, and of the people who collect it. We aim to do Citizen Science. Where the science and the citizens are of equal importance. The Fundamentals of Citizen Science is a course that will reflect these values: the importance of good data collection to science, and the impact of good data collectors on society.

Why Citizen Science?

We believe that citizen scientists can make a significant contribution towards healing the massive biodiversity issues of our generation. On one hand, citizen scientists enable up-to-date distribution maps for species to be made. On the other hand, citizen scientists generate civic awareness for biodiversity in their communities, becoming “ambassadors for biodiversity.”

How can I get involved?

You can be a part of this by attending the BDI’s week-long Fundamentals of Citizen Science course. We plan to run the course multiple times in 2021, at different venues. Provisionally (but with accommodation booked at the three places), these dates have been selected: 21–28 February at Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, Hanover; 11–18 April at Karoo Plains, Carnarvon; 6–13 August at Botuin, Vanrhynsdorp. More details below!

What will I do?

The course has both theoretical and practical components. As much time as possible will be spent taking the theoretical knowledge outdoors, and putting it into practice in the field.

What will I learn?

The syllabus covers some major groups of species: reptiles, birds, dragonflies, scorpions, spiders, lacewings, dungbeetles, frogs, etc. These taxa are all used as indicators of the quality of our environment. All are included in the Virtual Museum. You will learn basic biology for each taxon, especially those aspects which are important to actually finding the animals in the field. You will explore techniques for photographing animals in order to maximise the chance of identification to species level. You will also learn practical “hacks” for finding and photographing species in safe and ethical ways.

We also aim to help people improve their skills at being ambassadors for biodiversity. Many people are biodiversity blind. They are astonished to hear that there are, say, more than 20 bird species in their neighbourhood. They don’t grasp that their day-to-day survival; depends on services provided to us for free by biodiversity. Citizen scientists can make an active and informed contribution to conservation by implementing strategies for communicating with biodiversity-blind people.

Ryan Tippett and Rick Nuttall will do the bulk of the formal teaching. They will be helped, especially for the fieldwork, by one or two assistants. Both Rick and Ryan are Research Associates of the BDI. Rick has done a presentation about the Fundamentals of Citizen Science course. Ryan has talked during a Citizen Scientist Hour about aspects of the biodiversity at Karoo Plains, one of the three sites where the course will be held, north of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

What will a typical day look like?

The standard daily programme, adapted to fit each day’s content, will begin with an early morning in the field, followed by breakfast. Theoretical components will be done in the middle part of the day. Late afternoons will contain free time, followed by discussions after supper. This schedule will be adapted based on the focus group of species for the day. For instance, if the topic is scorpions, the practical session will occur in the evening.

What is special about the three venues?


The Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve is a very special place. It is a working sheep farm. You can arrive late in the afternoon, and before your head on the pillow that evening, you will probably have seen most of aardvark, aardwolf, porcupine, black-footed cat, springhare and hippo. PC Ferreira, our host, calls the first five species the “shy five”, and will take us on night drives on the farm after dinner. The farm is just north of Hanover, Northern Cape, on the N1, exactly half way between Cape Town and Johannesburg. We will stay at the New Holme Nature Lodge.

Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve (KhoiSan Karoo Conservancy)


Karoo Plains is on farm called Louievale, 50 km north of Carnarvon, Northern Cape. It is also a working sheep farm. This is unique part of Karoo. It is on a transition zone between the Upper Karoo and Bushmanland. The farm has an impressive mosaic of habitats, and consequently the biodiversity is rich. The southernmost red dunes for Red Larks are here and likewise gravel plains for Sclater’s Lark. Listen to Ryan Tippett’s presentation at a recent Citizen Scientist Hour.

Steenbok – Karoo Plains – photo by Karis Daniel


Vanrhynsdorp about half way between Cape Town and the Namibian border on the N7. This is where the countryside starts to look like desert! It is a town which most people simply by-pass. Botuin is a remarkable and comfortable oasis on the outskirts of the town. Salome Willemse, our hostess, is a champion citizen scientist. The BDI has used Botuin for many events over the years; for example, in January 2020 we did a small bird-ringing course here. The countryside around Vanrhynsdorp might appear to be desert, but it is incredibly diverse from a biodiversity perspective. The dates which we have chosen in August for the Fundamentals of Citizen Science course at Botuin are right at the start of the flower season. If we are a bit lucky with the winter rainfall in this northwestern corner of the Western Cape, we will get to be among the first to see the spectacular displays of wild flowers before the crowds arrive.

How are we handling Health and Safety?

We are committed to the health and safety of everyone involved in these courses. COVID-19 is probably going to remain a deep concern during 2021, and we are very aware of that. In addition, the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve has its own measures in place. This is the first, and largest, of the places we will visit.

How much does it cost?

At the first presentation of the course, in February at the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, the cost per person of the seven day course is R11,900. This includes the course itself, accommodation and meals. At the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, this includes night drives to see the Shy Five. At the other venues, the cost may vary a bit.

How do I apply?

Start by sending an email to Megan Loftie-Eaton (

Les Underhill
Les Underhill
Prof Les Underhill has been Director of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town since it started in 1991. Although citizen science in biology is Les’s passion, his academic background is in mathematical statistics. He was awarded his PhD in abstract multivariate analyses in 1973 at UCT and what he likes to say about his PhD is that he solved a problem that no one has ever had. He soon grasped that this was not the field to which he wanted to devote his life, so he retrained himself as an applied statistician, solving real-world problems.