'10 steps ahead': Kenya's tech war on wildlife poachers

Every morning, at the far perimeter of the wildlife reserve capped by Mount Kenya, a khaki-clad ranger meticulously sweeps the earth of animal footprints, covering their tracks from any poachers.

It's an antiquated approach to outsmarting would-be hunters, but this ranger is not alone. High on a mast nearby, a new camera scans around the clock for intrusions, relaying real-time images to armed guards at park headquarters.

It is among the latest technology deployed to combat poaching at Ol Pejeta, a private conservancy on Kenya's Laikipia plateau that shelters the only two northern white rhinos left on earth, among other endangered giants.

A handful of surveillance cameras may not seem very sophisticated for a sanctuary which is also home to the largest population of critically endangered black rhinos anywhere in East Africa.

But it's just the tip of the spear.

Last month, Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world's first wildlife tech lab - a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary dedicated to bringing conservation management into the information age.

Inside a retrofitted shipping container, computer engineers are testing the next generation of animal tracking chips and developing remote sensors that could one day monitor everything from ranger health to river levels.

"We are very much in our infancy when it comes to this kind of stuff. It is pretty cutting-edge from a conservation perspective," Richard Vigne, the chief executive of Ol Pejeta, told AFP.

Among other projects, researchers are working towards a chip small enough to fit in a rhino horn, but capable of live transmission of the animals' exact location and core vitals.

"No one else in the conservation space in Kenya is testing this... For me, that was very exciting," said Damian Otieno, a Kenyan IT engineer who left an office job for a career in conservation tech, and now leads the Ol Pejeta initiative.

Tech advocates say advances in data collection and smart applications on game reserves could prove revolutionary, and upend decades-old approaches to conservation across the world.

Until this year at Ol Pejeta, the only way to know if a poacher was lurking near a wildlife corridor was to spot him yourself, or trawl through pictures captured by a motion-triggered camera trap.

"If I had a bugbear about the world of conservation, it's that it tends to be fairly slow on the uptake when it comes to new technologies... that has to change," said Vigne.

Now, three cameras with artificial intelligence capable of telling man from beast send alerts in real time if disturbances are detected.

This is critical for the 250 elite rangers tasked with safeguarding 360 square kilometres of bushland grazed by more than 150 rhinos.

The last successful poaching at Ol Pejeta was in October 2017, when a northern black rhino was slaughtered.

But the threat remains. Last year, three rhinos were found dead with their horns missing in Meru National Park, on the other side of Mount Kenya.

Rhino horn is highly valued in parts of Asia for its believed medicinal qualities and still fetches higher prices than gold, said Samuel Mutisya, head of conservation at Ol Pejeta.

"In principal, we are a bank without doors," he told AFP.

Most intel on game reserves is gathered on foot by rangers in difficult and dangerous terrain, and the walkie-talkie reigns supreme.

Poor network coverage and the huge cost of infrastructure has hamstrung the rollout of even basic telecommunication services in some remote habitats.

Read the full article here: News 24