Airplanes, cameras, computers, wildebeests: The technological mediation of spaces for humans and wildlife in the Serengeti since 1950

Simone Schleper*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Drawing on the concept of technological mediation, this article examines the spatial politics of observation technologies and associated practices that have been used to monitor the movement of migratory wildebeests in the Serengeti from the 1950s until the 2000s. It shows that key technologies, and the types of research collaborations they sustained, mediated notably different normative ideas about human–wildlife interaction and the sharing of space in and around protected areas. During the 1950s and 1960s, observations of animal migration were conducted by airplane. Direct observation was characterized by the study of movement of migratory ungulates, such as the wildebeest, and humans across space in real time. Aerial observations depended on a close cooperation between scientists and park authorities, and on the knowledge and observational skills of game wardens. The experience of the movement of animals and people in real time allowed, to some degree, for experimentation with forms of human land-use. During the 1970s, many small-scale and short-term projects shifted the research focus toward data recording by camera. Aerial photographs created supposedly complete spatial overviews of inhabitation, which supported interpretations of spatial conflicts between humans occupying the park’s surrounding areas and animal populations inside the park. From the 1980s onward, computer technology allowed for long-term calculations of past and future trends in population densities of individual species. The understanding of the wildebeest as a keystone species and the Serengeti as a baseline ecosystem turned communities of local pastoralists and agriculturalists into a future threat. As observation technologies are here to stay, it remains important to pay attention to technologies’ potential roles in creating additional distances between researchers and research subjects. Historical insights, such as the ones presented in this article, can help reflect on how various forms of remote sensing may mediate normative views on human–wildlife interactions and consequentially affect local livelihoods.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)740-761
Number of pages22
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Issue number2
Early online date7 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


  • 20th-century conservation and research policy
  • Serengeti National Park
  • animal movement
  • human-wildlife interaction
  • technological mediation


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