Endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, the oxpecker bird clings on to large mammals, feeding off the ticks, flies and other pests found on their hosts hide.
“We aim to do the same with the world body,” says oxpeckers.org founder Fiona Mcleod, making one of the 150 panel presentations at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC2013) this week in Rio de Janeiro.
In this instance, however, the parasites she plans to identify and destroy are criminal poachers, such as those destroying African rhinos.
With extensive experience in covering environmental issues, the South African journalist recognized the need for more advanced tools to enhance investigative pieces.
“I’ve done traditional reporting methods for longer than I’d like to admit and the whole media landscape is changing so in order to
carry on doing environmental investigations you have to try and (work) with the changes,” says Macleod.
Her answer is Africa’s first journalistic investigative unit focused exclusively on the environment, which she hopes will play a role in revolutionizing environmental reporting on that continent.
The unit is data driven, offering a mapping tool that tracks environmental crimes. The intention is to give readers instant visualization of the extent that these events are occurring.
“I think it has an impact without being too gory,” she says. “It gives you the picture without turning you off, which often environmental stuff can be, sometimes just too in your face.”
It also serves as a network of environmental investigative reporters from across Africa and abroad. There have already been several successful collaborative investigations include tracking down Rhino horn smugglers in the United States who use a loophole in trade legislation to continue their illicit activities. They have also exposed the Rhino Horn Bar – one of the many online platforms used to buy and sell rhino horns.
While the current focus is on rhino poaching, the idea is to later use the platform for other forms of environmental crime, including mapping illegal mining and deforestation.
For Macleod, oxpeckers.org is a legacy project.
“I want to see environmental reporting continue into the future and in order to do that you have to keep pace with developments,” she says. “So I’m setting up this network not just for me but for future generations of environmental reporters.”