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As mentioned in a previous post, 5 tips for tracking rhino in the bush, I spent most of last week in the Karongwe Private Game Reserve with Ecotraining, learning about rhino behaviour, tracking and various other interesting aspects of life in the bush. I’m always amazed at how much you can learn about the environment by spending time away from urban areas, but what I hadn’t thought about before was how this knowledge could actually be used as inspiration for change.

Nature as inspiration is not a new concept, but according to one of our guides, Will Lawson, using knowledge gained from nature for innovative purposes has only recently been formalized into an industry known as biomimicry. As the name suggests, biomimicry is the practice of using natural forms, processes and systems to inspire innovation that can be used to address many of our own human challenges.

On the last day of the course, Will gave us a a very broad introductory lecture about biomimicry, which included case studies such as how studying dragonfly wings led to an adapted wind turbine design, and how the structure of sharkskin has led to the development of anti-bacterial surfaces. Architecture has also used biomimicry principles to address design problems, for example using the structural/thermo-regulatory elements of termite mounds to construct malls like Eastgate Centre in Harare.

Like an iceberg, only a small percentage of a termite mound is visible above ground

One of the most relevant examples for me was the application of biomimcry in the reduction of waste. Even though you see numerous piles of poo in the bush, the concept of waste doesn’t exist in nature, as every process forms part of an endless cycle of use and reuse. As we’re not exactly efficient when it comes to reusing all our waste, biomimicry practitioners have also looked to nature to address this problem, for example using enzymatic carbon capture to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

The complex muscular structure of elephant trunks has even inspired the design of robotic arms

However, it’s one thing to come up with fantastic ideas of how to utilize natural concepts in theory, but something quite different to make this way of thinking economically viable. This is a topic up for debate, and definitely depends on issues like funding and the specific innovation, something you can find out more about on the Biomimicry SA website, which is the local dvision of the US-based Biomimicry Institute, founded by Janine Benyus.

But even with these questions in mind, I found learning about biomimicry fascinating, and I think we all had a chance to apply this way of thinking while out in the bush, and when trying to complete a “quieting and listening” exercise by listing the qualities of an unknown natural object, while blindfolded (it’s tough!). On our final drive later that day, while “soft scanning” the bush for the last time, I felt like I had a different appreciation for everything around me, from wood-eating larvae to spiders who spin some of the strongest material known to man. I’ll also never think of termite mounds the same way again.

Spider silk is one of the toughest and most versatile natural fibres

For more information:

To read more about biomimicry and find more examples of how it is applied, visit Ask Nature, a useful online website/archive that even allows you to submit your own ideas.



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