Session Three: A Keen Sense

Paula Kahumbu

Kenyan-born 2009 PopTech Fellow Paula Kahumbu is the founder of Wildlife Direct. (I attended her Wednesday session with PopTech Fellow Paula Kahumbu and biodiversity researcher Healy Hamilton) She’s working to mobilize people to care about more about animal conservation, largely by using technology to better connect people to affected animals. A special area of interest for Wildlife Direct is protecting lions, which are often poisoned using cheap pesticides.  

Paula Kahumbu - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

She recounted the story of Anthony Kasanga, a young Maasai who decided that he wanted to save lions rather than kill them. Kasanga began blogging for Wildlife Direct and soon received international attention. His group, the Lion Guardians, saved 50 lions last year, which, considering their numbers, is a very high number. Wildlife Direct continues to work to get the word out about the importance of saving African wildlife by using modern tools of engagement.   

Katy Payne

Katy Payne, author of “Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants” and founder of the Listening Project is a “bioacoustician”. Earlier in her career, her work brought her to a zoo, where she sat for a week observing how an unrelated group of elephants formed social bonds. She became aware of a low throbbing sound that she didn’t hear in any other part of the zoo, and deduced that it was a low frequency that the elephants were using to communicating with each other. She returned to the zoo with equipment to test her theory. Payne played the PopTech audience a recording from the zoo, where we heard ears flapping and the exaltation of air whistling through elephant trunks. Sped up, the tape reveals a cacophony of sound otherwise inaudible to to human ears. Clicks and whistles similar to whales, but also different: deeper, more like a series of grunts than song. 

Payne spent the next fifteen years in South and East Africa researching elephant communication. That area has between 16,000-82,000 elephants. As Payne says, “Nothing was really known about these elephants.” She found a station that overlooked a popular clearing where hundreds of elephants congregated. Working with a team, she set up digital recorders to listen in to these elephantine conversations. They spent months in the platform observing the elephants and compiling the data, bringing back video and audio that they were able to link together. With this data, they created sheets (like tablature) that documents these sounds in writing, creating a sort of elephant dictionary. Understanding how elephants use sound to communicate, Payne says, provides a previously unseen glimpse into the vibrant, complex and ultimately very social world of elephants.   

Willie Smits

Willie Smits, founder and Chief Science Officer of Tapergy is interested in looking at the big picture to bring together learnings from different disciplines. He’s studied orangutans, climate change and indigenous people and especially, where these all intersect. Smits’ homeland of Indonesia, he states, is the third-worst offender in the creation of greenhouse gases. This lead him to seek the answer to the question: How can we power the earth in a truly sustainable way? 

Smits believes one crucial way is to save the forests. We need to imitate nature in our agricultural practices. We should look at raising sugar palm trees, which can generate a form of usable oil with harming the plant or limiting it to one growing season (unlike other crops like corn). Sugar palms also have very deep roots, which help to bring nutrients far into the soil and reduce erosion.

Tapergy promotes the planting of sugar palms, which are still used in Indonesia as a form of currency, to create a efficient crop that provides a year-round resource and source of income for local people. Other solutions include using technology to encourage children to log plant and animal life around them, providing useful snapshots of real climate data and using available and emerging technologies to better inform our decisions about agriculture and how we are living our lives in general.     

Gideon Obarzanek - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

Gideon Obarzanek

Australian choreographer Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move showed a brief sequence of his choreography, which included dances that looked like giant spiders scuttling across the stage, the illusion of rose petals blowing across prone dancers and intertwined bodies bathed in pulsating, monochromatic shards and shafts of light.  

Obarzanek has become increasingly interested in using projectors as part of his pieces. He realized that he didn’t like the confines of using pre-rendered images (which forced dancers to be in specific places at specifics times), so he worked with a software engineer to create a program that takes information from a moving body and use algorithms to create new images based on their movements. Obarzanek would then project that back onto the dancers, allowing for a more organic form of expression, illustrating what Obarzanek describes as their “creature part”.

In this way, light because its own entity in the show. It’s as if, Obarzanek said, he is choreographing with light. This, combined with noise and feedback, allows his team to create something truly unique.


Photo credit: Kris Krug

Rate this post:

  • Meh.
  • Love it!
  • Community Rating: 7
Click and drag above to vote.