This Whiz Kid Developer's Virtual Safari Guide Makes Sure You Spot Animals
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he's changing how you spot animals in the wild.
By Nick Dall
On a quiet afternoon drive in search of wildlife in the Letaba area of Kruger National Park, things came to a head. Desperate never to miss a sighting, teenage Nadav Ossendryver would beg his parents to stop every oncoming vehicle to ask the occupants what animals they’d seen. On that day in 2011, their ninth trip to South Africa’s 7,500-square-mile park, this tactic was wearing thin — on Ossendryver and his long-suffering family members. “There must be a better way of doing this,” the youngster thought to himself as he sat around a campfire later that evening.
Nine years later, Latest Sightings — the wildlife spotting app and community that was born out of that adolescent frustration — has more than 100,000 members and four full-time employees. Its YouTube channel recently hit 1 billion views, making it South Africa’s most-watched channel of any genre. Ossendryver, 23, is working on expanding the app’s footprint beyond South Africa and even into anticipating sightings before they happen. While the venture capital vultures are circling, Ossendryver is having none of it. “I want to grow the company how I want to grow it,” he says.
In terms of technology, “the app is not revolutionary in any way,” says Arthur Goldstuck, a tech commentator who has followed Ossendryver’s career closely. “What makes it so effective is Nadav himself and his passion for sharing wildlife with his community.”
Having one of the first videos he uploaded to YouTube go viral might sound like a massive stroke of luck — but you make your own luck.
“I love the Kruger far more than I love IT,” agrees Ossendryver, explaining that computers have always been a means to an end. Like the time, at age 12, when he invented a bot that could enter online competitions a million times per hour. He won several prizes this way, including an iPhone.
The wildlife bug bit on an impromptu safari taken soon after the family returned to South Africa from Israel when Ossendryver was 8. After begging to see lions “every second of the trip,” his wish was eventually granted on their last morning in the park when they got a pride sighting. “That’s when I fell in love with the bush.”
The two passions merged in 2011, when he built both a rudimentary blog and a web-based app that enabled users to upload geotagged photos of their wildlife sightings in real time. But still Ossendryver doesn’t consider himself a tech prodigy. “I write code one line at a time,” he laughs. “Every time I get stuck I just Google stuff.”
The then-teenager next took advantage of the long school vacation to launch a sustained Twitter campaign, to build users without a marketing budget. By constantly scanning “like 100 hashtags” (#kruger, #lion, you get the picture) he was able to target people currently in the park. “Did you see the lion?” he’d tweet. “Now go see the leopard.” Then, he’d invite them to join the Latest Sightings community.
Towards the end of the six-week vacation, his one-man marketing campaign received a major boost when the region was hit by massive floods. Being “the only ones who had the photos in real time,” says Ossendryver, had reporters clamoring for Latest Sightings’ pics. By the time the new school year had begun, Latest Sightings had 30,000 users.
“The tools Nadav uses are available to everyone,” says Goldstuck, but the way he uses them shows “a very special mind at work.”
Ossendryver hadn’t given any thought to monetization, but soon a potential revenue stream emerged from the savannah. Having one of the first videos he uploaded to YouTube go viral might sound like a massive stroke of luck — but you make your own luck. The 15-year-old knew that YouTube’s algorithm would prioritize anything referencing the Battle at Kruger which had broken the internet five years prior, and that few users would know what a “terrapin” is. Not much happens in “Battle at Kruger – Crocodile vs Tortoises – Continuation!” but it garnered 111,000 views and got Ossendryver an invite to join YouTube’s partner program.
Since then, Latest Sightings has reeled in some serious cash. The company takes a 60 percent cut while the rest goes to the owner of the video. This “generous model,” says Goldstuck (Apple works on 90/10), has encouraged users to collaborate and is vital to Latest Sightings’ success. Ossendryver says contributors can bring in upwards of $10,000 per video, but he won’t share revenue for the company.
Not everyone is a fan. South African National Parks have occasionally accused the app of contributing to speeding and traffic congestion in the park and there have been suggestions that it might be used by poachers to find animals. But Ossendryver has not allowed a single rhino sighting to appear on the app. And while Professor Peet van der Merwe of North-West University’s tourism department thinks the parks department might have a point about congestion, he “doesn’t buy” the speeding rap and believes the app could actually be used to combat poaching. “Technology is here to stay,” he says. “So let’s use it for conservation purposes.”
Ossendryver says he’d happily work with the authorities to iron out problems, but he’s focused for now on what he can control. To keep up with YouTube’s algorithm, he is forced to upload a video a week. It isn’t easy to churn out viral videos at this rate. Growing his community and expanding the app’s footprint to new parks are the two most obvious ways to improve the hit/miss ratio.
As of February the app had grown to 105,000 registered users. He also has 7,000 active spotters across 30-plus WhatsApp groups. (“Old-school people don’t like apps.”) At the moment, hardly any sightings are coming through because of South Africa’s strict coronavirus lockdown. But once the virus fades, Ossendryver plans on taking the app — now also popular in one other South African park — to Kenya, India and elsewhere.
And, he adds matter-of-factly, he’s teaching himself statistics. “When I’m in the park I know that I use statistics to spot more game than most people. But I’d love to really analyze the trends and add a predictive element to the app. Anyway,” he laughs. “Maybe nothing will come of it.”
Maybe so. But we all know what happened the last time he had a bright idea during a game drive.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall