Week 4: How Can Technology Help the Anti-Poaching Activities?
Sarah Eccleston – Cisco UK&I’s Director of EN and the Internet of Things – is in Zambia spending a month living in an elephant orphanage, where she hopes to connect elephants to the internet. Follow Sarah to Africa and back on this blog to find out why, how and whether it works.
Here is a snippet of a conversation I had this week:-
Me: I can’t get a mobile phone signal.
Caroline: It’s because the gsm booster is down.
Me: Why is the booster down?
Caroline: Because there is no electricity.
Me: Why is there no electricity?
Caroline: Because it’s cloudy.
Me. Oh. I’ll make a cup of tea then.
Caroline: There’s no water.
Me: Why is there no water?
Caroline: Because the water pump isn’t working.
Me: Why isn’t the water pump working?
Caroline: Because it’s cloudy.
I tell you this, to demonstrate perhaps the biggest issue of all in using technology to aid anti-poaching activities….. Even if we built a network, and connected sensors, and found a place to position the solar panels that power it all in a place where they would not get stolen, we still have the problem that all a poacher has to do is wait for a cloudy or rainy day. Because unless you have some pretty hefty solar panels, anything electrical in the African bush stops working when the sun goes in.
And lets not forget it’s the rainy season in Zambia for 4 months of the year.
But lets not give up… lets assume for a few moments that a really nice solar panel manufacturer out there likes elephants and gives us a helping hand (are you listening solar panel manufacturers?).
As I said in my last blog post, I have increasingly been thinking that connecting the land and the anti-poaching rangers to the internet may be a better option than connecting the elephants. So when I got a last minute opportunity to spend time with the CEO of GRI – who manages the whole anti-poaching operation with precision he developed in his ex-army background – I jumped at the chance. Here are some of the things I learned:-
The Current Situation:
- GRI provide anti-poaching support for the whole of Kafue National Park, which is 6 million hectares of bush land. In other words, it’s about the size of Wales.
- None of that land has internet access.
- The Zambian government, through ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority), are given enough budget to pay salaries for 21 GRI scouts. Those 21 scouts have to cover the entire 6 million hectares.
- Obviously, I can’t share too much intelligence here…. But in summary, those scouts are split into teams, and teams are deployed either proactively to prevent poaching in areas, or reactively to areas where gunshot has been heard or where intelligence has informed them that a poacher is operating.
- The operation is run with military precision. The CEO here is ex-army and very, very on the ball. His camp for the scouts and rangers looks like something the British Army would be proud of.
- The problem is that 21 scouts is not a lot of people for such a remote and vast area of land to protect.
- The second problem is that the infrastructure is also not conducive to law enforcement. Roads are few – so a road through the National park heading North-South or East-West could have as much as 70km of remote, dense bush each side of it. That makes it easy for poachers to hide, and the only way the scouts can patrol that land is on foot.
- The third problem is that there is no single, connected communications infrastructure for the whole park and teams, which makes sharing of intelligence and co-ordination of activities more difficult.
- Because the area is bush (not desert), the best way to assess poaching activity is actually from air. A recent flight with a bush pilot highlighted 53 elephant carcasses that were previously unknown to the organization.
- From the air, the team can also see the areas of bush which have been burned by poachers. They do this so as to clear an area of vegetation. When the elephants then approach to eat the new shoots and leaves that grow there, it is easy for the poachers to see and shoot them.
- Common ways for poachers to get into the park is either by walking or bicycle.
- To get the ivory out of the park, they either bury it, and return to collect it later, or they chop it there and take it home with them by bicycle, or large trucks will pretend to be broken down at the side of a road through the park but actually they are there to offload the ivory.
How Technology Would Help:
First, my vision for future technology to patrol the park….
- I liked the idea of having scout stations around the perimeter, where scouts and solar-powered Internet points of presence (PoPs) are located together every 10 km or so. Having kit as solar panels located with the scouts would prevent them from being stolen.
- Issue to Overcome: Cost. And we don’t have enough scouts to man all the stations.
- I thought a low-bandwidth method of internet connectivity such as Sigfox would be more commercially viable than than other methods.
- Issue to Overcome: Cost of deploying a Sigfox network to an area the size of Wales needs to be calculated, as does the range of their signal… ie, will a network at the perimeter provide cover for the whole park without needing unmanned booster stations (which, again, would get stolen…although I was thinking that lodges in the park could resolve this by being the location of base stations).
- If elephants were connected to the internet, those elephants location and sensory information (such as heartbeat) would be known to the scouts in those stations. This may sound crazy to the layman, but this is exactly the same solution as internet-connected Cows on farms, which is currently deployed in multiple countries.
- Issue to Overcome: As I wrote in my last blog entry – how do we get a sensor on ALL elephants in Africa, how do we get a sensor to STAY on an elephant and besides, SHOULD we connect an elephant to the internet – is it still truly wild?
- Read more about Internet-Connected Cows, here
- When an elephant was shot (and heartbeat stopped) the closest patrol would be alerted and have a good chance of catching the poacher who is still in the area.
- In addition, I wonder if internet-connected soil would also help. Soil has already been connected to the internet for 2 main use cases – one, farm land has been connected to the internet in order to “tell” the farmer when it needs water or fertilizer. A vineyard in Spain deployed this, for example, and increased grape production by 15% while reducing fertilizer costs by 20%. Two, soil has been connected to the internet in war zones, to give alerts when enemy troops are “on the move”, by sensing their footsteps. I therefore wondered if the same solution could be used to sense when poachers entered the park, or likewise, when an elephant left the park, risking it being poached on un-patrolled farmland.
- Issue to Overcome: How does the soil internet sensor know whether the footprint is a poacher or an impala? Male humans and male impalas weigh about the same (up to 75kg).
- As well as this perimeter network, other technologies could help. One is obviously camera traps. These are cameras attached to trees or on the ground in the bush, which trigger when something walks in it’s line of sight and take a picture of whatever it is. These are usually used by wildlife researchers to get footage of wild animals which appear in an area infrequently, making full-time monitoring of the area unfeasible. Increasingly though, these are also being used to trigger when an animal leaves the park (so as to reduce human-animal conflict). But I have learned of an example here in Kafue here where this very week a poacher was caught on the camera trap, with his gun. The photo of him caught on the camera led to his identification quickly, and as I type this, an undercover team is on his case.
- Issue to Overcome: We need to stop the camera traps from being stolen. I have heard of them being camouflaged as rocks for this reason.
- Second-hand mobile phones can also be a tool. Left in the bush, with a solar panel on the back for power, a mobile phone with an app – not unlike Shazam – can then “listen” to the bush and when it hears a gunshot, it can alert the nearest patrol station.
- Issue to Overcome: Do I need to say it again? We need to stop it from getting stolen. But I am wondering whether an action on me when I return to the UK is to run a campaign to collect un-used mobile phones for this purpose. Smartphone users now buy an average of 2 devices per year – one of the reasons Apple sell $0.5Billion a day of devices and Samsung sell even more – so there are a LOT of smartphones sitting in people’s drawers somewhere that could be used for this purpose.
- Flip cameras. Flips are ideal because they have no cables, they charge through a USB port, and can hold one hour of HD video. If each scout had one of these videos, they could use it to record footage when they catch a poacher with ivory or a gun, which is great for the later court case. Notoriously, poachers are backed by business men who hire good lawyers to win their court cases so they can be free’d to continue poaching. This would reduce that.
So, that was my vision. But when I asked the CEO here to tell me if he could choose one technology to help the anti-poaching what would it be, he said a helicopter. I can see his point. Management of this land by air, with helicopters and drones, is by far the very best way of patrolling this land. It’s also more realistic based on the challenges specific to Africa – ie, the prevalence of any technology you deploy being stolen as quickly as it is installed, and the difficulties with deploying a commercially-viable internet in an area this remote, without any government support or backing.
Read more about how Drones can help conservation here.
His second answer though, was a communication system for the GRI team. And my ears pricked up because Cisco is a market leader in Communication and Collaboration solutions.
The need is for the patrols in all corners of the park to be connected and able to collaborate with just one system. His preference was a VHF network. Of course my immediate thought was in Western terms – smartphones and iPads with Cisco Jabber and Telepresence, and absolutely no doubt that would make a massive difference. But, as everyone keeps reminding me here, this is Africa. People still sell mangoes at the side of the street for a living. My vision is just too far ahead to see.
So an action on me when I return is to work with the technology companies who can provide a simple communications network, including Cisco, to understand the costs and feasibility of a solution.
Having spent time here in Africa, what I really think this problem needs is people. In the west, we deploy technology to make people more productive. Here, we are going to need more people to make the technology productive. Because even if we were able to deploy my vision above, 21 scouts is not enough to act upon the intelligence it would provide.
To see what I mean, think of London. London has a ubiquitous Internet, 422,000 CCTV cameras, more smartphones than people, electricity everywhere and streetlights on every pavement. But if London had only 21 police officers, how much crime would that technology really help them to prevent? And London is only 157,000 hectares, compared to 6 million hectares here in the park.
So first, we need more scouts. I had the idea of a “Boots in the Bush” campaign to raise money for more anti-poaching scouts. Every $6000 a year that could get raised would buy and equip one more scout.
We need aerial cover – whether that is a helicopter or drones – over every rhino and elephant habitat in Africa. This will help us to see poacher tracks to investigate, elephant routes to protect, bushland that has been cleared and is thus “next year’s poaching ground”, and to monitor both mammal and poacher activity.
We need a communication system that enables the multiple scout patrols to collaborate and share intelligence, but which does NOT provide a collaboration capability to the poachers – so building a GSM network in the park, for example, would be counter-productive.
Then… we need more technology. Then we give the scouts HD video cameras to record the poachers they find. Then a critical mass of camera traps will be ideal because then we have enough scouts to respond to their information. Then phones which listen for gunshot will be helpful because we will have scouts within a reasonable area to respond. Then technology to protect the perimeter of the elephant’s habitat will be invaluable because we will have patrols along that perimeter to act upon alerts.
After that, comes the Internet of Things and Big Data. Because then, the analytics which Big Data can provide, will have people to assess and act upon it, thus ensuring that prediction of poaching leads to prevention of poaching.
So What Will I Do on Returning to the UK?
One, I have given myself a few simple things to investigate further – like webcams for elephant orphanages to drive interest in the baby elephants around the world and to share regular footage of them with schools in Western and Asian countries.
Also, more camera traps and solar-powered phones which listen for gunshot seem quite straightforward for me to work on. And in the last 3 blogs, I have shared a few ideas that would help – like the elephant-id app or program that could surely be developed so I may plan a hackathon to get one invented if such a thing doesn’t already exist. I will work on all those ideas.
Two, for the longer term technology needs, like my vision above, I believe a group effort is needed and I aim to build a consortium of technology companies and technology-capable Conservation charities to work together to design solutions, as well as to raise funds for their deployment.
Three, It goes without saying that I will do all I can to raise awareness and support of these elephants and I am hoping my firsthand knowledge gained by so few here in Africa will now help me to do that in a compelling way.
Until then, this is my last blog post, so I will leave you with pictures of some of the adorable, vulnerable orphan elephants I have had the privilege of getting to know here in Zambia. I wish there hadn’t been a need for me to get to know them, I wish they were still safe in the park with their Mothers. But nonetheless, I have loved every minute of their company and I will watch their progress with love and hope that they one day get released back into the wild and live the life they were meant to live. Free of man.
To see more of what I saw in Zambia, including my footage taken with the Google Glasses as an elephant researcher in the field, see my Google+ page here.
My thanks to wildlife biologist Dr Kerryn Carter and John Carter of Game Rangers International in Zambia, without whom my research would not have been possible, or as much fun. I have learned so much from you both – much of it is going to be of absolutely no use to me living in London whatsoever, not least that tortoises urinate on you when you pick them up. But it’s been wonderful to learn nonetheless and is an experience I won’t forget. Thank you both.
Details of their research here.
(Also, I really am sorry about all your pencils. But when you admit I am the best elephant identifier you ever met, I will tell you where I have hidden them).
Also thanks to Sport Beattie, the Founder and CEO of GRI, who – despite having quite enough to do saving 5,000 Zambian elephants – gave me his personal time in helping me to understand the anti-poaching project. I am also very grateful that when I introduced myself as someone from Cisco UK who had flown in to connect some elephants to the internet, he didn’t just assume I was delirious with malaria.
Finally, my very best wishes to Casey O’Brien who was my research partner for this GRI project, and who has an extremely bright future ahead of her as a wildlife biologist. She was made to live in the bush as much as I was made to live in Kensington. Without her, I wouldn’t have known what half the species I have seen this past few weeks are. In fact, what am I saying… I wouldn’t have even seen them if she hadn’t pointed them out. Most of all, I want to thank Casey for not telling me that squeaking noise outside my tent every night was a colony of bats until the end of my trip. I was much happier thinking they were a rare African species of nocturnal sparrows.