The Outside Blog

Science : Cameras

Your Travel Photos Are Helping Rhino Poachers

Seeing a rhino in the wild is one of Africa’s quintessential safari experiences and a lump-in-your-throat moment for those lucky enough to realize the dream. This is what you came to the continent for, right? 

Maybe you’ll zoom in with your SLR camera and snap some great shots that you’ll edit later and share online with friends. Or perhaps you’ll take quick pics on your cell phone and post on Facebook or Instagram within minutes.

Either way, what you might not realize is that the second you share that photo online, you could be helping a rhino poacher find his next victim.

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Finding Rhinos

The Hospitality Association of Namibia recently posted a photo on its Facebook page of a sign hanging in a safari vehicle that reads: "Please be careful when sharing photos on social media. They can lead poachers to our rhino. Turn off the geotag function and do not disclose where the photo was taken."

Geotagging is the process of automatically including geographic information in cell phone pictures. When you share your photos with others, the information is embedded within the photograph, and anyone with access to the Internet can extract that data from your picture.

Plug the longitude and latitude into Google Maps, for example, and you could discover the exact spot where the photo was shot, give or take a few feet. Combine that with the fact that rhinos are very sedentary and often hang out in the same general area for days at a stretch, and you have a potentially serious situation.

"If you’ve got a fresh GPS coordinate for a rhino—or you know where it’s going to water every night—it’s very easy to quickly find and poach it," explains Chris Weaver, director of the Namibia program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Rhino poaching has dominated the news recently, as the number of endangered animals killed over the past few years has risen astronomically—all in an effort to sell the horns of the prehistoric mammals. Some believers of traditional Asian medicine think pulverized rhino horn will cure strokes, convulsions and fevers, among other ailments.

Though there is no scientific proof of such medicinal value, rhino horn is nonetheless highly prized—so much so that a single rhino horn can fetch $250,000 on the black market.

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Faux Tourists

As more and more of the endangered rhinos are killed, conservationists and government officials in some parts of Africa have become extremely protective. In fact, they try not to discuss the animals publicly anymore.

"While Namibia would love to boast about its success with relocation of protected species into private parks and the growth of its rhino population and rhino tracking activities, unfortunately such positive news may draw poachers to our area," said Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. To combat this, several organizations have started educating travelers about how poachers can pluck GPS coordinates off photos that tourists post on social media sites.

Poachers can also examine your photos and identify markers in the background, such as a particular grove of trees or a mountain peak. And some illegal hunters even pose as tourists, going on guided expeditions on game farms or in national parks. The first time this happened, in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, two men killed a pair of white rhinos. The men were later arrested. It’s even happened in India, where poachers killed a pair of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

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Guides, of course, lead their visitors right to where the rhinos are, and the faux tourists may then snap photos without raising any suspicions. Would-be poachers or informants can then send a photo with a location tag to anyone or return to the spot later to seek out the rhino.

Weaver was recently exploring the Namibian desert with some guests when he came across a group of tourists who took an unusual interest in two white rhinos. They snapped more than the typical number of photos of the animals with their cell phones and spent more time with them than Weaver has observed during his 20 years working in Namibia.

"I’m thinking, how would a person know that they’re not just forwarding these photos on to China or Vietnam and saying ‘How much will you pay for information on this rhino?’" Weaver said. "Pass that on, and five minutes later, you’ll have an answer back: ‘I’ll give you X amount for that set of horns."

It’s not a far-fetched proposition. In South Africa, for example, officials have become more vigilant about rhino tourism, documenting the names and visits of tourists. Weaver said he’s even heard of some spots where cell phones are forbidden on safari vehicles.

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How You Can Help

Although visitor photos may inadvertently help poachers on occasion, there is a silver lining: travelers can actually be a huge aid to rhino conservation efforts, especially in Namibia where tour operators work with community members who value wildlife and work tirelessly to protect it.

"You as a tourist are actually making a difference," WWF’s Weaver says, explaining that a portion of tour payments go toward community conservation efforts. "Your tourist dollars create long-term incentives for people to set aside habitat for wildlife and live with wildlife."

To ensure you’re not aiding poachers with your travel photos:

  • Disable the geotag function in the settings section of any smartphone you use to take photos.
  • Strip off the location data on photos previously shot.
  • Be mindful of privacy settings on social media sites. if posting photos of rhinos, only share them with trusted contacts.
  • Pay attention to fellow tourists. If you see someone acting out of the ordinary or hear a few too many questions about where rhinos are and how long they’ll stay there, alert national park staff or your guide. That person could be a poacher informant.
  • Be wary of sharing too much information with overly interested people, such as taxi drivers or hotel staff. If a line of questioning gets too detailed about the location of an animal you saw that day, answer vaguely.

Learn more about what WWF is doing to stop rhino poaching.

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6 Beach-Ready Essentials

Instead of that old-school boombox, consider throwing a powerful water-resistant speaker or high-tech action camera in your beach bag this summer. Check out these six sand- and sun-resistant products guaranteed to make your hot summer nights even more fun:

Canon PowerShot D30 ($330)

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Go ahead and dive up to 82 feet below the surface with this 12.1-megapixel pocket camera. The tough outer shell can withstand drops on the dock up to 6.5 feet. The killer feature? Perfect for beach-goers, the screen uses a new LCD screen that’s viewable even in direct sunlight.

Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell ($230)

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Don’t dip your toes in the water unless you have the tunes to play in the background. This durable Bluetooth speaker is water- and splash-resistant (not waterproof), plays music at a loud 110 decibels, and connects to your phone or tablet from up to 30 feet away.

Quiksilver Rashguard ($40)

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This smart short-sleeve shirt has a hidden feature. Although it looks like every other T-shirt you’d wear to the beach, it uses a new Rashguard tech with a UPF 50+ rating for sunblock. The entire line includes long-sleeve shirts, swimming trunks, and surf shirts.

Miir Growler ($59)

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Not every water bottle is beach-ready. Not so the Miir Growler, which uses a unique clamp system that keeps sand and other residue from building up at the lip. The double-insulated shell keeps cold drinks cold for about 24 hours and hot drinks hot for 12 hours.

Sprint Kyocera Hydro Vibe (Free with contract)

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A few years ago, companies started offering so-called “waterproof” phones. The Kyocera Hydro Vibe actually lives up to the claim—it can be submerged down to 3.28 feet for 30 minutes. The 4.5-inch screen is also crack-resistant and the phone wards off dust and sand.

Plantronics BackBeat FIT ($130)

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This Bluetooth headset, which is splash-resistant and durable, comes with a neoprene armband to hold your smartphone on your arm while you lay out at the beach. The headset lets you control music and answer calls with a quick finger press.

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How High Can GoPro Go?

By this point, GoPro cameras have been used to film just about every activity on the planet, from BASE jumps to baby’s first steps to surgical operations. Amateurs affix to them to dogs and kites, professionals use them to shoot Discovery Channel shows and feature films. But the company found itself in unfamiliar territory earlier this week: the stock market.

This past Thursday, GoPro’s initial public offering brought the company into the world of public trading. It’s the first consumer electronics company to go public since headphone maker Skull Candy debuted in 2011, and early signs look promising for GoPro. Its shares rose 31 percent by the time the floor closed Thursday, giving it a market value of 3.9 billion, nearly equal to that of Domino's Pizza Inc., according to the Wall Street Journal

By just about every measure, the company is on fire right now: revenue increased last year by 87 percent to nearly $1 billion, it sold 3.8 million cameras last year, and GoPro customers uploaded nearly three years worth of video in 2013 alone. But founder and CEO Nick Woodman’s brainchild has run into some recent debt, and revenue dropped 7 percent in early 2014. A source with knowledge of the situation said that the IPO was not a result of that debt, but that it’s simply a natural progression of GoPro’s evolution.

{%{"quote":"For many of us, a GoPro is not unlike a fancy new juicer. We buy one because it’s new and cool. We’re excited to use it at first, but then we realize that it’s easier to just buy juice. Or watch someone else’s awesome video."}%}

As hot as GoPro is right now, its IPO comes at a pivotal time for the camera maker. One of the big questions on the table, which the company acknowledged in its IPO filings, is that it currently makes nearly of all of its money selling cameras (that cost upwards of $400). This is a serious issue.

For many of us, a GoPro is not unlike a fancy new juicer. We buy one because it’s new and cool. We’re excited to use it at first, but then we realize that it’s easier to just buy juice. Or watch someone else’s awesome video. That’s because creating a fun little video that your buddies might want to actually watch is not easy: you need to do something cool, film it from multiple angles, and then edit it creatively. There’s lots of boring POV footage on people’s hard drives; there are lots of GoPros sitting in people’s gear bins, no longer being strapped to chests or mounted atop helmets on a regular basis.

One big example stands out as a cautionary tale. Remember Flip Video cameras? If so, you probably haven’t seen the company around lately. Cisco Systems bought Pure Digital, maker of the Flip cam, for $600 million worth of stocks in 2009, and yet the ascendance of the smartphone camera rendered the product obsolete. Cisco shut the Flip operation down in 2011.

Despite what some financial analysts might be predicting, GoPro is a long way from becoming obsolete. While it’s true that every few months a new competitor enters the action-cam scene, often selling a similar product for less money, no one has yet to make a comparable—let alone better—camera. We know this because we’ve tested nearly all of the rival cameras. New technologies, like wearable cameras that capture 360-degrees of footage, will eventually erode some of GoPro’s market share, as will smartphones, whose video capabilities are only getting better, but not any time soon.

GoPro is acutely aware of the challenges it faces. It just recently debuted new software that makes it easier than ever to edit your own movie. Newer, fancier, smaller, more user-friendly cameras are in the works. And they’re rapidly trying to transform themselves from a camera company into a media empire, à la Red Bull. Woodman told Bloomberg on Thursday that GoPro’s “focus is to help customers capture, manage, share quality content.” The product he’s trying to sell is not just the technology itself, but the experience of reliving last week’s bungee jump through video. 

{%{"quote":"GoPro is a long way from becoming obsolete. While it’s true that every few months a new competitor enters the action-cam scene, often selling a similar product for less money, no one has yet to make a comparable—let alone better—camera. We know this because we’ve tested nearly all of the rivals."}%}

Not everyone bungee jumps, though. And while they’ve done an exceptional job at marketing themselves at active people doing rad things, they need to do a much better job marketing its camera to the rest of us. This will require new and different branding and marketing campaigns.

The biggest question, however, is whether or not they can figure out how to make money as a media company. GoPro recently struck a deal with Microsoft to be a channel on the new Xbox, and has begun to monetize its content on its YouTube and Virgin America channels, but these are relatively small drops in the bucket. To make significant amounts of money, GoPro will need to negotiate deals with bigger and bigger content distributers as well as forge new licensing partnerships.

And GoPro will need to do so pretty quickly. The reason Red Bull has been able to sign up hundreds of athletes and musicians, sponsor major events and stunts, and become a massive media and marketing empire is that many people drink several cans of their stuff every day. GoPro doesn’t have that luxury. As its camera sales inevitably decrease, it needs to figure out how to distribute and make money off its own content, be it user-generated or of its own creation.

“Over time, if you think of all the resources that Apple or Google can bring to bear, not this year but next year, GoPro could have some problems,” said Paul Meeks, a tech industry financial analyst with Saturna Capital. “It’s the same kind of scenario for GoPro. They have to become a bigger ecosystem than the product." 

Which is exactly what it’s trying to do. The IPO is getting all the mainstream media attention, but behind the scenes GoPro is reportedly signing up musicians, producers, and content creators of every stripe. It also recently beefed up its roster of athletes. In short, it’s ramping up big time. So while you may not use your GoPro as often as you thought you might, don’t write the company off yet. 

If it can pull it off, it will be a clever trick.

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10 Rules to Detox Your Digital Life

Remember the dire Y2K technological apocalypse predictions? If only they had come true. Without sermonizing, here are 10 ways to disconnect the broadband flow of digitized scheiße that's drowning our souls.

#1: Smell a Book

Hey, iPad readers: Do you remember what a book smells like? Especially an old book that everyone in your family has read a few times? As an 11-year-old, I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus The Hobbit, and, verily, even The Silmarillion at least four times. Call me a creep, but sometimes I'd walk by, pick up one of the tattered, coverless paperbacks, and smell it.

I won't attempt to describe the aroma—it's too personal—but it made me feel good. Books are tactile and sensory. Like candlelight, they're intimate and calming. And a book won't knock your teeth out when you fall asleep reading one—if you can sleep at all after reading on an iPad. Experts say the light your iPad or phone emits is jacking with your melatonin. Not so with books.

#2: Ditch the Smartphone Alarm Clock

One of the only smart features I actually use on my phone is the alarm clock. This is a trap. Alarm clocks go next to the bed, so your phone goes next to the bed. My latest software update makes a wee light flash blue (Facebook), white (text), or green (email) every time a message arrives. What's that? Somebody tagged me? Oh, it's an irate reader calling me a douche at 11:00 p.m.

Now I'm angry, or stressed, or annoyed, or distracted, and perhaps worse, I'm looking at a bright white light (more on that later). Recently, I moved my angry alarm phone to the kitchen and replaced it with a large wall clock at my bedside. It ticks like a school clock and somehow reminds me of my late grandfather—and the heartbeats of my sleeping dogs. Studies have found that our constant connectivity affects our mental health and frequent cellphone use can lead to insomnia.

#3: Talk to Your Coworkers

We hire and train a few interns at my office each year. Important parts of the job entail checking facts, connecting with sources, and asking for photo-shoot gear. Invariably an intern—a journalism student, mind you—will enter my office and hopelessly explain that a source hasn't gotten back to them. "Did you call?" I ask. "Uh, no," they reply, shaken by the thought.

It has been reported that the generation currently in high school send upwards of 1,300 text messages a month, and they're seven times more likely to text than to call. Email and text are marvelous tools, but they work best in place of otherwise guttural vocalizations like "got it" and "on the way." Texting while you drive is a thumb stroke away from a negligent homicide charge. A poorly worded email can get you fired. Easily articulated nuances like mirth, sarcasm, facetiousness, or just the right amount of displeasure do not cross over to hastily typed digital communication. Pick up the phone. Unless you're driving. In which case, shut up.

#4: Put Down the Camera

Recent studies have shown that aggregating pixels is not the same as observing and reflecting upon the world. It's called the "photo-taking impairment effect," and although you may feel like you're documenting wondrous existence, mostly you're just operating a chintzy camera and not paying attention.

This means that unless you're carefully framing the subject and noting the light and composition of the impending image, you're not really absorbing the experience into your memory. As Socrates once wrote on a wildly popular Athenian bumper sticker (it bombed in Sparta), The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living. Your daughter's dance recital. Skiing with your son. Mountain biking with friends. Put your camera phone down and be there. Socrates didn't take selfies. #drinkinghemlock 

#5: Join the Dark Side

I interviewed a sleep-disorder specialist a few years ago. For the most common form of insomnia, his advice was stupid simple. Don't drink coffee after 3:00 p.m., and get your television, laptop, tablet, and smartphone out of your bedroom. It sounds like hippie science, but biorhythms are real. Staring at a bright box late at night tricks the body into thinking it's morning. The effect is so powerful it can make you hungry for breakfast, which is why it has been linked to obesity. Unless your insomnia is entrenched, it's probably fine to read a book made of paper by a dim light. Otherwise, the bedroom is for sleeping—and "wrestling." 

#6: Bring Back Cursive

Like art and gym class, handwriting has largely been dropped by our education system—not that adults are writing by hand much these days, either. It's a bigger loss than we thought. A series of studies have shown what we intuitively knew all along. Like creating art, the act of writing lights up the brain in ways that typing decidedly does not. There has even been conjecture that the very act of writing cursive may instill "functional specialization" (focus, control), help us compose our thoughts, and even treat dyslexia. We aren't going to stop typing anytime soon, but when paired with just the right fedora and skinny jeans, perhaps bringing a journal on vacation and a legal pad to a meeting might pass as hip.

#7: Turn Off Your Alerts

The end of the world is coming. Check this box if you'd like to be notified by email or text message. Last winter, I downloaded an NFL app, thinking—as advertised—I would be able to watch a playoff game as I flew to Utah. Naturally, it didn't work. But then, many months later, during the far-superior hockey playoffs, my phone alerted me no less than 20 times about the endlessly fascinating and life-affirming results of the NFL draft, an event that now competes with the birth of a British royal for pure idiotic spectacle.

With the exception of reverse 911 updates, turn off all your phone notifications. Yes, including Facebook. And adjust your computer settings. Do you really need the little pop-up and accompanying chime when an email arrives? Has instant messaging ever benefited you? They seem petty when isolated, but systemic distractions are a big deal. NASA big. There's even a field of research devoted to it called "interruption science." For the humans among us, no matter what kind of work you do, true creativity or even just workaday focus comes in brief bursts. The masterful novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told the Paris Review that, at his best, he could write a worthy paragraph in a six-hour workday—and most of the time he'd tear up those lines the next morning. The breaking news that Johnny Football went to the Browns might have completely derailed him.

#8: Unplug from the Data

I wear a brilliant GPS watch in the backcountry. My mountain bike is kitted out with a touch-screen computer that tells me my location, route, speed, heart rate, and pedaling cadence. My Strava-connected road-cycling friends speak the strange language of power meters. For them, riding isn't about mileage but wattage.

I enjoy my outdoorsy gadgets: The watch once saved me from a night wandering the high country in search of my tent. The bike computer lets me gauge my effort so I don't blow up before the final climb. Power meters have taken the guessing out of training regimens. But sometimes we rely upon tech too much. A map or even just a look around tells me that if I follow the creek, I'll hit the pond. And there are times when you should listen to your body instead of your power meter.

"Athletes sometimes have to separate themselves from their data analysis," says Jason Hilimire, director of coaching at FasCat Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. "As coaches, we can spot it in their written comments. 'I'm tired. I'm hungry. I can't sleep.' They're cooked from training or their jobs or their family life. We tell them to unplug and ride with no prescribed goals. Hit the mental reset. Have fun."

#9: Forget About Facebook

Unless it's to notify you that their 27-year-old dog died, nobody goes on Facebook and tells the world about their downfalls: Can't afford new snow tires. The kid has lice! Dead-end job. Drinking too much lately! No, those aren't good posts. Facebook is about gloating and pretense, not the harsh realities of life that actual friends help with. The showing off is especially prevalent with outdoorsy types—and I'm as culpable as anyone. Nothing but sunshine, gleaming choppers, and powder on my page. Nobody's life is that perfect. One small study hinted that the more participants interacted with Facebook, the unhappier they became. Sometimes, when I'm feeling alienated from society and nauseated by being, Facebook makes me feel a whole lot worse. For those days, what we need is a social media site composed of morose French existentialists chain-smoking Gauloises. "We refuse to like your post," they would say. "At the most, we'll recognize that behind the veil of your public presence, you too also suffer."

#10: Share the Music

In Empire of the Summer Moon, author S.C. Gwyne spends a few lines telling the reader how Comanche would wake up singing. That passage resonated with me. And then, last night, my 12-year-old son said he didn't listen to as much music as his peers who spend their days isolated in their private soundtracks. He seemed almost dejected. Music is part of our family life, but earphones and portable music are not. In the car or at home, we listen to music together. We share music, just as I did with my parents and teenage friends. And when we wake up, we wake up singing.

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