Cartography 2.0: Volunteers Help Map Africa as Never Before

A high-tech mapping project canvasses the African bush

The lioness coughed, and Mark Eveleigh looked up from his laptop. There were seven of them, 400 pounds each—that’s 2,800 pounds of feline—staring right at him. Eveleigh was in northern Uganda helping create a map of Africa, and like so many before him, he was risking his life in the name of cartography. But unlike those early explorers, Eveleigh traveled with a satellite uplink and a GPS—not an astrolabe. 

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Eveleigh is one of 40 volunteers who have devoted the past 18 months to a project called Mapping Africa’s Protected Areas (MAPA). The goal: produce the first comprehensive digital chart of all the protected places on the continent. Every road and game trail and water hole. Eventually, when it’s all said and done, millions of coordinates will be working in concert with photos and video to establish what amounts to a kind of Google Street View of the Serengeti.

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March Turnbull, the South African businessman who started MAPA, sees the project as elemental: “How are you supposed to protect something if you don’t know what’s there to begin with?” he asks. MAPA’s first of many “layers” was launched on Google Earth last year, accounting for every protected region in eastern and southern Africa. It’s the result of 12 months of fieldwork covering 125,000 hard-earned miles and at least one run-in with lions. “They stayed near our camp all day,” Eveleigh recalls. “We heard roaring in the night, and then the bellows of a dying buffalo.”–Text by Ryan Bradley; Photographs courtesy of MAPA Project