An interesting piece, and technology should be used where it will have a positive effect. But it is only a way of treating the symptoms and not of getting to the root cause of poaching.  This sort of piece panders to the militaristic and “whiteys with tech equipment will come to the rescue” approaches. if you don’t tackle why people poach and the issues of lack of investment, lack of value and income for local people and, most of all, corruption in high places, no technology in the world will do more than scratch the surface. KS



As day bleeds into night in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya,
Ntayia Lema Langas, the deputy warden of the Mara Conservancy, barrels
across the landscape in a Land Rover flanked by rangers, crossing an
invisible border into neighbouring Tanzania.

A pickup full of Tanzanian rangers heading back across the border stops and
the vehicles? occupants greet each other. A senior officer shows
photographs of poachers they had arrested earlier in the day at a makeshift
camp. He flicks through photographs on his smartphone of hacked zebra meat,
spread out on the dry grassland.

After the brief meeting, 30-year-old Langas continues the journey with his
troops. They park behind shrubs at two strategic points facing an
escarpment. A tiny sliver of Moon smiles high in the black sky while
flashes of torchlight twinkle in the distance. Sylvia Nashipai, a
24-year-old ranger who joined the conservancy in 2016, stands in front of
the car, the other rangers scanning the escarpment for torchlight and

The expanse of savannah breathes gently as crickets chirp, the calm broken
by the occasional crackle from the radio followed by directives from
Langas. He scans the area through a forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR)
strapped on to his car, and a monitor used to follow the images and direct
the camera. Before, the rangers used torches, radios and their naked eyes
and ears. Now they use the infrared camera and handheld thermal cameras
that can detect the body heat of poachers and animals up to three
kilometres away. Armed with this information, Langas’s rangers can chase
and apprehend them in under an hour.

“It’s difficult to ambush poachers without this camera,” Langas tells me
the following day. ?A lot of arrests have been made ? I think more than 100
now, I don?t have the exact figures.? Recently, Langas has caught dozens of
poachers who have been turned over and prosecuted. In this area, most of
them kill for bush meat, but rangers also have to chase elephant poachers
who roam the Maasai Mara, a vast stretch of savannah that is also home to
populations of lions, leopards and cheetahs.

On this occasion, no arrests are made. As the rangers set out to leave, one
of the four-wheel drives fails to start. A handful of them gather behind
and push the vehicle until the engine splutters back to life. The
headlights flood the landscape ahead and the two vehicles full of tired
workers rumble off into the distance.

Despite the efforts of Kenyan rangers, elephant and rhino poaching numbers
remain at alarming levels. Conservationists estimate that, currently, more
elephants in Africa are being killed than born. Despite an increase in
ivory seizures and a declining number of elephants being killed for their
tusks over the past five years, at least 20,000 elephants were killed in
2015 alone, according to data collected by the Convention on the Trade in
Endangered Species. The black rhino remains critically endangered; in
countries such as Kenya, they have been gathered in sanctuaries and are
guarded by armed wildlife rangers. China, one of the world?s biggest
markets for ivory and rhino horn, began enforcing an ivory ban on January
1, 2018, but new frontiers for the illicit trade in Asia continue to emerge.

In 2012, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched the Wildlife Crime
Technology Project, an initiative focused on using technology to protect
some of the world?s most vulnerable species. Initially supported by Google
and in collaboration with companies such as FLIR and hardware giant CISCO,
the project has the ambitious mission of achieving through technology what
conservation groups and national wildlife services have failed to do so
far: to make wildlife reserves poacher-proof.

I meet conservation engineer Eric Becker in November 2017 on the edge of an
airstrip scratched into the vast green plains of the Maasai Mara, one of
the world’s most spectacular wildlife reserves bordering Tanzania.

Becker, a tall, dark-haired and bespectacled man who describes himself as a
“nerd” is reserved, often retreating to the sidelines, bowing his head to
inhale from a silver box-shaped e-cigarette. He initially seems uncertain
as to how much to divulge to me.

Born into a family of military engineers who have worked on fighter jets
and weaponry, he is used to dealing with highly classified information. He
has worked as an engineer for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) and the Special Forces. At DARPA, where he worked as a contractor,
he developed technologies the public doesn?t know exist: prototypes which,
according to Becker, are 50 years ahead of commercial technology.

“Everything they did was science fiction,” Becker says about DARPA at our
camp. He mentions synthetic blood they invented, and a pod with robotic
hands that can be placed over wounded soldiers for doctors to treat

Becker talks sparingly about his inventions for the US military, but when
he talks about his experiments with anti-poaching technology his words soon
flow. A natural inventor, he is perpetually weighing up the precision and
possibilities of different technologies and how they can be combined,
stretched and shaped in different ways.

Becker was contracted by the WWF in 2014 because of his background in drone
R&D. A wildlife organisation deploying in remote parts of Africa
surveillance and tactical communications technology traditionally used by
the US military, has raised concerns over privacy, human rights and data
collection among conservationists. In some countries, legal frameworks for
the use of surveillance technology may be lax or ill-defined. Although
Becker is proud of some of the combat technology he developed, “Making it
like a video game to kill people just wasn?t my thing,” he tells me.

He soon found that developing low-cost surveillance and tactical technology
that could survive the rugged terrain of national parks in Africa and Asia
came with a specific set of challenges. For example, with a lack of
consistent power supply and basic infrastructure in many of the parks the
WWF works in, battery life is an important consideration. Another early
project, involving the use of drones as a deterrent for poaching in
Namibia, had to be shut down in 2017 as drones became unpopular with
African governments concerned about external surveillance.

Becker began experimenting with thermal cameras, repackaging the sensors
within FLIR units that have been used by the US military for years for
night operations. He then developed algorithms that could help them
identify human silhouettes and vehicles, and trigger alerts in a control
room. He mounted the cameras around a stretch of fence line in Lake Nakuru,
a government-run rhino sanctuary. In the national park located in the city
of Nakuru, Kenya’s third-largest city, poachers were known to enter through
a 20-kilometre stretch of fence line, kill rhinos, saw their horns off and
disappear into the bright lights and congested streets in the distance.

In 2016, Becker approached Brian Heath, the conservationist who runs the
Mara Conservancy. Heath, who witnessed some of the most brutal days of
elephant poaching in Kenya, was “sceptical” of Becker’s technological
approach. His rangers were equipped with .303 calibre rifles from the first
and second world wars, a handful of old radios and a small fleet of
Nato-green Land Rovers. Unlike other parts of Kenya and East Africa, there
were few sophisticated armed poaching rings operating in his stretch of the
Maasai Mara National Reserve known as the Mara Triangle.

Bush-meat poachers from Tanzania would walk down a steep escarpment that
acted as a natural frontier between the two countries. They would lay
hundreds of snares during the day before returning at night to collect
their kill. The snares would injure and sometimes kill dozens of animals
every year  leopards, lions, elephants, zebras and giraffes  even if the
poachers never intended to catch them. Most poachers would use bow and
arrows and spears, and rarely fought with rangers or resist arrest. The
main problem for Heath and his team of rangers was that they simply
couldn’t see the poachers in the dark.

After visiting the Mara Conservancy, where he shadowed the rangers on day
and night foot patrols, Becker decided to mount a FLIR camera on to a car.
He wanted to operate it like a ground-level drone. The camera would be
monitored by a commander, who then directed rangers using handheld cameras.
Unlike night-vision cameras, which rely on moonlight and starlight to
function, heat-detecting thermal cameras can operate during the daytime and
in the pitch-black night, helping rangers scan areas up to three kilometres

Around the same time, in March 2016, Becker installed static thermal
cameras capable of identifying human forms and vehicles near a fence line
often used by poachers in the national park of Lake Nakuru, around 300
kilometres north of Heath’s conservancy.

?In the past, we would never have found these people,? Heath says. ?Now the
poachers are saying it?s just not worth going out, because the chance of
getting caught is getting higher and higher. It has been a big deterrent.?

Heath says the technology could be useful in ivory-poaching hotspots, where
the H&K G3s and Kalashnikovs of national rangers are often matched by
skilled gangs, who are typically armed with similar weaponry.

In January 2018, Colby Loucks, the head of the WWF?s Wildlife Crime
Technology project, met senior officials from the Kenya Wildlife Service
(KWS) and Jeff Frank, vice president of global product strategy at FLIR, to
discuss the possibility of rolling out the technology in the country?s
national parks. They told WIRED that they are planning to deploy the
technology in rhino sanctuaries and reserves throughout the country.

After the cameras were deployed at Lake Nakuru, Becker received a request
from the Kenyan government: ?They wanted this system on the Somali border
to monitor the Somalis coming in.? He turned it down. ?We need to make sure
they?re focused on the parks,? he says.

While in the Maasai Mara with Becker I met Marc Goss, manager of the Mara
Elephant Project, which also works to combat poaching in the reserve.
Dressed in a brown ranger?s uniform with tortoiseshell aviator glasses,
Goss stands next to his parked helicopter smoking and talking on his phone
in Swahili. Adults and barefoot children gather to marvel at the
helicopter. Born in Kenya, Goss is one of a cast of ?Kenya cowboys? or
white Kenyans, who are key figures in the conservation movement.

He met Becker through Powell, a conservation biologist who works with
Becker on the Wildlife Crime Technology Project. Goss befriended Becker and
introduced him to Heath in 2015, while Becker and Powell were touring Kenya
looking for potential sites to experiment with their drones. Goss had been
using them to scare elephants away from farms they often raided for food.

While Goss?s work has focused on breaking down poaching rings, in recent
years his organisation The Mara Elephant Project has become more concerned
with the escalating conflict between humans and elephants. Farmers are
fencing off land and planting and grazing cattle closer to national parks
and the rangelands between the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. ?As people
continue to spread, farm and herd more livestock, the area for elephants to
live in gets smaller and smaller,? Goss explains over a cup of coffee at
our camp.

Goss and his team fitted elephants with collars containing electronic GPS
trackers, and monitored their movements through a smartphone with the STE
Tracking App, developed by Vulcan, a private company owned by Microsoft
co-founder Paul Allen. Once the elephants started heading into villages and
farmlands to raid crops, Goss would fly out in his helicopter and shoo them
away to prevent them from getting speared or killed by villagers and

In recent months, he has managed to obtain a licence from the Kenyan
Ministry of Defence to operate two drones that he hopes will replace his
helicopter ? which costs an expensive ?280 an hour to run ? as a means of
pushing the marauding elephants away. He and Becker have discussed
strapping a thermal camera to the drone to make it easier to shoo the
animals away at night. Goss also plans to use the drone to spray chilli
powder over the elephants as a means to keep them away.

We take off in the helicopter with Goss and Becker. Cumulus clouds and blue
skies unroll before us, green grasses and hippopotamuses bathing in the
winding brown rivers below. The landscape soon fades into arid, treeless
patches of land dotted with small farms fenced off with dry acacia branches.

We touch down in the plush camp once owned by Paul Allen and are greeted by
a young white Kenyan man in a cowboy hat, a large knife sheathed in leather
on his hip. Standing next to him is an older, squinting South African man
with the gravelly voice of a smoker.

Goss and Becker begin setting up their DJI Phantom drone. There had been
reports of a large old bull elephant that had been injured and was
stumbling across the escarpment. Goss used the drone to locate the animal
and circled the helicopter low to push it out into a clearing where he
could be treated by a vet. As Goss edges closer towards the striken
elephant in the helicopter, Campaign Lino, a veterinarian with the David
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, shoots it with a tranquillizer from the window.

The elephant falls to the ground and the team swiftly begin treatment,
cleaning out the animal?s wounds and applying antiseptic. When they are
finished, Campaign injects the elephant to wake it. After examining the
injuries, the team concluded the elephant was likely attacked when it
encroached on a farm, he says, because there was no poison in the wound ? a
sure sign of the involvement of poachers. As the animal comes to and
stumbles towards a thicket of acacia trees, we speed off in a pickup truck
back to the camp.

As we rumble across the Mara in a shiny white WWF jeep we are accompanied
by Peter Lokitela, a tall, slender man with sharp brown eyes who was born
in the Turkana region of Kenya, an area known for its fierce cattle-raiding
culture and the discovery of the skeleton of the Turkana Boy, the
earliest-known human remains.

Lokitela works for the WWF?s Kenya office on anti-poaching and speaks
frankly about the hardship he has faced as a ranger: finding bloody
elephant carcasses encircled by vultures; camping in the open bush; chasing
poachers for months on end and violent shoot-outs in which rangers had been
killed. Lokitela?s stories about past operations often end abruptly with
accounts of violent encounters with poachers.

?When you get poachers in the bush and they?re armed, what do you discuss
with them?? says Lokitela. The KWS has also long been rumoured to have a
policy of shooting poachers on sight, introduced by paleontologist and
conservationist Richard Leakey, who is now chairman of the organisation.
Leakey founded KWS in 1989, during the height of the poaching crisis, and
is seen as the man responsible for the militarisation of modern
conservation in Kenya, through his use of helicopter gunships and the
deployment of Maasai warriors.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused the KWS of involvement in
disappearances and counterterrorism operations, and claim the organisation
lacks transparent processes through which rangers who commit abuses can be
held accountable.

Later, I meet Leakey at his office at the Nairobi-based Turkana Basin
Institute. On a long, squat shelf in the corner of his office rest an
assortment of ornaments: a model of a museum on the origins of mankind that
he plans to build in northern Kenya, a skull his mother discovered in 1959
in Tanzania and a model of dung beetle rolling a ball of manure given by a
friend as a joke.

For Leakey, the big challenge in the fight against poaching isn?t
technology, but managing a team of dissatisfied, ill-equipped and underpaid
rangers. ?I fear that security through technology, which is quite costly,
is drawing more potential funding away from the real issues,? he tells me
as he sits behind his immaculately organised desk.

?If we could be less corrupt and steal less money in KWS, we could probably
manage without donor support, except for vehicles, planes and things like
that. But we?ve had a lot of holes. It?s been like a sieve.?

For Eric Becker, constant surveillance could mean greater accountability
and mean that rangers are less likely to conspire with poachers or steal
seized ivory or rhino horn.

In January 2018, he began work at a national park in Zambia, an
ivory-poaching hotspot. With the support of CISCO, Becker will install
mobile-phone towers fitted with radios and antennas across a 60-kilometre
stretch of Lake Itezhi-Tezhi in Kafue National Park. He will mount thermal
cameras that can rotate 360? and are trained to detect the movement of
dugout fishing canoes ? a common method of transport for poachers.

The rangers will be trained to use a sophisticated tactical application,
the Android Team Assault Kit, used by the Special Forces and US law
enforcement, which they will use to send back images to central command via
a secure Wi-Fi network. If this project, on schedule to be up and running
this spring, proves successful, the WWF plans to roll it out in other areas
where wildlife species remain under threat from poaching.

In Becker?s future vision of a wildlife park, glowing figures of elephants,
lions, zebras and giraffes move across computer screens in a control room.
Fatigue-clad wardens monitor the area in towers fitted with rotating
thermal cameras, sensors and camera traps, placed within the savannahs and
the thicket. Elephants are tagged with small devices that translate their
cries and calls. Gunshot detectors alert central command to incursions by

Under the moonlight, teams of rangers would rally with real-time
information and directives beamed to their smartphones. They would launch
micro-drones fitted with thermal cameras to find their target. They would
move in on the poachers and arrest them. Ideally no animal or human would
be killed in this process. In the daylight, rangers would ferry tourists
around the park. As they approach wildlife, sensors would be triggered and
a virtual tour guide would tell them about the animal and their habitat.
The animals would be perpetually monitored and protected.

Back in the real-world control room at Lake Nakuru, a ranger monitors a
computer screen containing feeds from 16 cameras across the fence line,
near where one notorious poacher who was killed once lived. An alert is
tripped whenever there is movement and the ranger must acknowledge every
one with a keystroke or a click of the mouse. Becker had to ?dumb down? the
system to only trip off alerts when there is movement from humans and
vehicles, before dividing them into ?classified? and ?unclassified.?
Updates from the system are sent daily to the park?s warden.

?It just keeps people honest,? Becker tells me. ?They know that Big Brother
is watching.? Becker also envisions a national ?war room? in Nairobi where
real-time footage and information from the parks could be fed. In the
coming months he?s hoping to experiment with wireless camera traps that
could send images back to base immediately.

At nightfall at Lake Nakuru, we head out on patrol with the rhinoceros
squad. They spot a cluster of three rhinos near the lake, shimmering with
bright city lights in the distance. The rangers, brandishing their G3s and
AK-47s, must monitor the huge mammals throughout the night.

Steven Juma Were, a portly sergeant with the rhino squad who has been with
the KWS for 24 years, has seen camera traps and new technologies come and
go. Over the past two years the cameras have ?helped a lot?, he says,
particularly with securing this particular boundary. Becker demonstrates to
the rangers how the FLIR cameras work in comparison to the night vision.

The poachers, the sergeant says, have already found a new entry point. But
Becker, and his vision of a future park, is edging closer. The thermal
cameras mounted on towers will continue scanning the surface of the lake.
His electronic eyes in the sky, constantly monitoring man and the wild.

*Clair MacDougall is a freelance journalist based in Liberia. She wrote
about activists fighting for online freedom in Africa in issue 11.16*

This news service is provided by Save the Elephants.