‘At this rate the African elephant will be extinct in 11 years’: conservation tech lab
Faced with the ever-present threat of poaching, conservancies, game reserves, and national parks in Africa are gearing themselves up with technology to protect their diverse animals.
Africa is home to some of the most sought-after animals on the black market, and this is why anti-poaching technology is all the more important.
To learn more about the kind of technology that African organizations have been deploying, The Sociable spoke with Damian Otieno, who manages the Conservation Tech Lab at Ol Pejeta, a private conservancy located on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau.
Ol Pejeta is home to the only two remaining northern white rhinos on the planet, among other endangered giants.
“At this rate, the African elephant will be extinct in 11 years”
Launched recently, the Conservation Tech Lab at Ol Pejeta claims to be the world’s first wildlife tech lab that is exploring different technologies to be plugged into conservation efforts to help protect wildlife and biodiversity.
According to Otieno, an elephant dies of poaching every 15 minutes.
“At this rate, the African elephant will be extinct in 11 years,” he says.
Naturally, the challenges that a conservancy like Ol Pejeta faces are quite different from what one might face in another setting such as cities and towns, hence their strategies of meeting these challenges are unique as well.
As Otieno says, “To fight the challenges, we don’t just get up in the morning and develop solutions for conservation. We go to the field and speak to conservationists, people in wildlife, and groups on the ground. That’s how we know about the challenges they face each and every day in their operations, and from that we start thinking of the technology we can innovate or deploy to make their work easy.”
Otieno is a computer scientist who left his corporate job for a career in conservation tech.
“I kept asking myself, ‘As a technology or computer person, what is it that I can do to have an impact in people’s lives? How can I give back to the community? An opportunity arose in Ol Pejeta Conservancy and I went for it,” he reminisces.
Poaching Threats To Conservation
Otieno says that game reserves and conservancies mostly face poaching threats like armed incursions that mainly target high-value animals such as rhinos or elephants.
The most valuable of animals include the black rhinoceros, which are large animals that can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. Their prominent horn can grow up to five feet in length, a major attraction for poachers. Poachers, loss of habitat, and competition for food, are rendering this species critically endangered.
Another species that is endangered due to poaching, predation, and overgrazing, is the Grevy’s zebra. These beautiful animals are also known as the Imperial zebra, and are the largest living wild equid and the largest and most threatened of the three species of zebra.
Elephants are another dwindling species, that face threats of extinction because of the illicit ivory trade.
Animal Monitoring – The Main Challenge for Conservation Spaces
One of the key areas that needs looking into and exploring with technology is monitoring. To deal with this problem, the Conservation Tech Lab has developed a system from scratch to finish.
“Before, we didn’t have eyes on the ground, but now we do, which can help against poaching”
Just outside Ol Pejeta’s fence are several communities. Animals from the conservancy often stray into these communities, and people like Otieno are looking at how to bring these communities closer by giving them tools to easily communicate with the conservancy instead of harming the animals.
“The two spaces around the conservancy called Wildlife Corridor allow the free movement of animals in and out. Some of the communities might take out a machete and kill the animals, but we don’t want that. We want them to communicate with us,” he says.
Anti-Poaching Technology in Use at Ol Pejeta
Ol Pejeta has been teching up to meet its daily poaching challenges with a variety of exciting equipment that might be straight out of a modern safari movie.
Apart from basic equipment like binoculars for rangers, who patrol from a safe undetected distance, Ol Pejeta has a digital radio system with GPS tracking capability for rangers, which they rolled out in October 2013.
This has helped assess on-going field patrol activity from the headquarters, providing on-screen location, distribution of teams at any given time, and analysis of patrol coverage on Google maps by patrol teams. This in turn assists in planning of deployments to address observed patrol gaps.
The equipment can be used to send distress signal without having to speak and offers superb signal coverage and clarity compared to analogue systems. The system also allows for private text messages and calls to be sent between radios.
“Turbonet radios allow our boots on the ground and rangers to easily communicate and pass on messages regarding any occurrence in the conservancy,” says Otieno.
The conservancy has three infra-red motion-triggered cameras, placed on key wildlife pathways. Some of the cameras were donated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), while others are borrowed from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
“We have had a couple of incidents in the last one-two months, where we spotted people trying to come into the conservation area,”
Apart from keeping an eye on poachers, these cameras provide insight into the behavior of many of the conservancy’s wildlife species, such as elephant herds, lions, hyenas, zebra and in some cases jackals, wild dogs, and a few antelope species, that too without disturbing them.
“We know all the activity that’s happening in the corridors now. Before, we didn’t have eyes on the ground, but now we do, which can help against poaching.”
The conservancy also uses Earthranger, a software platform that collects information on activity in a protected area, bringing information into a single, integrated, real-time visualized operational platform. The information includes the animals and assets being protected via trackers, the rangers protecting animals via digital radios, and threats or potential poaching via ranger reports.
Ol Pejeta has an electrical fence that goes round the perimeter of its 360 km2 of area. The fence is always powered to deter poachers from crossing into the conservancy and carrying out nefarious activities.
“To bolster the fence-line security front, we also test out fence-monitoring devices that notify us in real time if a fence section suddenly becomes unpowered,” Otieno says.
High-Tech Anti-Poaching Wish List
While Otieno is proud of what the Conservancy Tech Lab has been able to achieve so far, what would be the ultimate high-tech anti-poaching equipment he would wish for? His prompt answer included a whole list of tech.
Camera-equipped drones are at the top of Otieno’s list, which can remotely photograph poachers in their hide outs, which are usually difficult-to-reach areas. Autonomous network-connected series of drones that are able to follow a 3D object such as a poacher could also be deployed for anti-poaching efforts.
“Instead of sending a ranger into a car to go and find out exactly what is going on, we can launch a drone with speakers and analytics, which zeroes in on the poachers and says, ‘Hey! you have trespassed. Get out!’” he says.
Real-Time Cameras with Analytics and Thermal Capabilities
Another equipment he wishes for is the use of video cameras armed with analytics and thermal capabilities to monitor the fence line.
“The analytics could identify humans who tamper with or get very close to the fence. When they cross over the fence, the camera analytics could then be used to track their movement. It would be nice to have analytical functions that can distinguish a poacher from a ranger. Sometimes, even in real time, people can’t really tell a lion from a gazelle,” Otieno says.
He would also like thermal cameras to track poachers at night when there is low visibility.
Fiber Optic Distributed Acoustic Sensing
These sophisticated-sounding systems detect vibrations and capture acoustic energy along the optical fiber, which then functions as if there were thousands of microphones installed, Otieno explains. Classification algorithms are used to detect and locate, for example, intrusion activities, leaks, or other abnormal sounds.
“I think the technology being deployed at Ol Pejeta can easily be scaled to other conservation spaces around Kenya, Africa, and also the world”
“This technology, if deployed along our fence line or across key hot-spot areas, would allow Ol Pejeta to get real-time alert of any intrusion activity as it occurs,” he says.
Animal Trackers for Key Species
Another equipment on Otieno’s wish list are trackers placed in key endangered animals to monitor them and track them much more efficiently, thus ensuring their safety from poachers.
“Ol pejeta is around 360 km2 and I’m looking at applications whereby, I can sit down and still move around the whole conservation space. If there is a break-in somewhere, some form of analytics and proper acoustics should send data in form of notifications,” he says.
Support for Setting Up Conservation Technology
Otieno says that while working with animals and nature, it becomes inevitable for an idea like the Conservation Tech Lab to conceptualize.
“In places like Ol Pejeta, when you work very closely with fauna and flora as our partners, such ideas get socialized. That is how we could set up funding from world foundations to set up this 40-foot container,” he says, referring to the retrofitted shipping container, where the Conservation Tech Lab exists right now.
He explains that Ol Pejeta has a unique business model combining tourism and cattle ranching, which allows it to meet its main expenses from the income it generates.
However, projects that are capital intensive generally tend to be donor funded. Donors can support the projects in various ways from providing kits, trainings, and waivers to software fees and, of course, monetary donation.
“It would be nice to have analytical functions that can distinguish a poacher from a ranger. Sometimes, even in real time, people can’t really tell a lion from a gazelle”
“The government is the custodian of the wildlife of Kenya and is very interested in their conservation. It supports through various trainings on conservation practices and through its national police rangers, who guard and secure the various conservancies and parks,” he says.
The conservancy also received help from United Wild Life and the WWF.
“Right now we are looking for more funding from other people. We are trying to embrace meaningful partnerships with other people to see how we can move forward,” he adds.
Ol Pejeta’s Tech Plans for the Future
Poaching is a widespread issue across Africa and several conservancies are applying technologies in an effort to curb the vice.
For example, in a wildlife preserve in Zimbabwe, some of the rhinos roaming the park have sensors embedded in their horns. The trackers send the animals’ GPS locations to solar-powered base stations three times a day, which then send the data to rangers through a mobile app.
In the future, the conservancy is looking to have Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) thermal cameras along their fence line that will allow their rangers to spot a poacher even in the night. They are also seeking permission from the government to have Sigfox or LoRa rhino trackers, which would allow more efficient monitoring and security for their key species.
“I think the technology being deployed at Ol Pejeta can easily be scaled to other conservation spaces around Kenya, Africa, and also the world,” Otieno says.
“At any given point in time, when you want to scale that technology, we have the knowledge, the expertise, to advise other people on how best to embrace this technology. Also, we can choose the technology wisely,” he concludes.