The beast was large. That much I could tell, though darkness muddied the view at midnight in South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve. Then the animal turned its head and I saw its profile. Rhino. Determining whether it was a white or black rhino - distinguished not by color, but by the shape of the mouth - was a bigger challenge. Fortunately, a handy field guide helped. I was getting close to a white rhino.
My encounter required no Land Rover, binoculars or long-haul flight to Africa. I was on a safari with my desktop.
I was spying exotic creatures, from elands to zebras, on my computer, and I also was helping scientists understand the African plains ecosystem. That's a nice twofer, and anyone can do it.
Snapshot Safari (snapshotsafari.org) - an international citizen-science project created by the University of Minnesota's Lion Center - has placed hundreds of motion-sensor cameras in places ranging from Tanzania and Mozambique to South Africa. Three new natural areas, all in South Africa, were added last week: Camdeboo National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and De Hoop Nature Reserve.
The project allows the public to identify wildlife caught on camera as part of an international census of African mammals. The site offers a tutorial for newcomers and descriptions and photos of all sorts of animals to help with the identification. Plus, other people are identifying the same animal photos, which takes the pressure off. Just log on, choose a site, and head into the wild.
The website offers a genuine, safari-like sense of discovery. I scrolled through a series of three images (most often, the camera gets three quick-succession shots), seeing a close-up of an animal's flank (what's that?), then its body (oh, some kind of antelope), then its head with telltale horns (a springbok!).
Snapshot Safari is part of the Zooniverse platform (zooniverse.org), where citizens can work on a vast range of research projects.