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How technology is helping Kenya win the war against poaching

Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary

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Kenya tech battles 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, said.

Among other projects, researchers are working towards a chip small enough to fit in a rhino horn, but capable of the 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.

Related: Kenya’s apex bank governor says weak Kenyan Shilling not linked to banknote plan

‘Bank without doors’

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 (90,000 acres) 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 principle, we are a bank without doors,” he said.

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.

Related: Environmental activists protest Ghana’s plan to mine bauxite

‘Ten steps ahead’

Ol Pejeta, however, is connected to a stable network that requires little power to cover the entire park. Data on everything from security breaches to fence damage, lion sightings and ranger locations are fed into a digital dashboard, accessible at a finger’s touch.

A pair of flashing handcuffs on the screen indicates an arrest. A “poacher contact” alert would trigger the immediate deployment of armed rangers. Other innovations have been tested elsewhere in Africa to combat wildlife crime, but cost remains a major hurdle to widespread uptake.

Drones, thermal-imaging cameras and virtual-radar fences were among technologies trialled to mixed success in several African nations by WWF through a Google-backed programme that ended in 2017.

FLIR Systems, which manufactures night-vision cameras, said in January its technology, already deployed in the Masai Mara, would be expanded to 10 Kenyan parks and game reserves.

Vigne said the challenge for Ol Pejeta’s researchers would be developing solutions that can be replicated cost-effectively, at scale. “It’s all very well having one or two parks in Africa with lots of techs, but if that is really costly to the point that nobody else can do it, then it’s a waste of time,” he said.

Prototypes of small, inexpensive chips with years-long battery life are already being tested to track the conservancy’s 6000-strong herd of Boran cattle. Soon, Ol Pejeta hopes to adapt this to rhino tracking, providing intelligence about where and when to deploy rangers and trimming their security bill. “We want to stay one step ahead of the poachers. Ten steps ahead, even better,” said Otieno.

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International election observers flag concerns over Mozambique’s polls

The country voted in general polls on Tuesday after a campaign marked by violence and claims of electoral fraud

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International election observers flag concerns over Mozambique polls

International observers on Thursday said Mozambique’s election was conducted in an “orderly manner”, but expressed concerns about voter registration irregularities and “an unlevel playing field”.

The country voted in presidential, parliamentary and provincial polls on Tuesday after a campaign marked by violence and claims of electoral fraud.

President Filipe Nyusi’s Frelimo party — which has ruled Mozambique since independence in 1975 — is widely expected to again beat its civil war foe, Renamo, a former rebel group turned main opposition party.

Election day was seen as largely peaceful, but tensions have risen with uncertainty over when the results will be released.

The final results must be published within 15 days of the vote, but the electoral commission has indicated a provisional tally — which had been expected on Thursday — would not be issued.

Ignacio Sanchez Amor, leader of the European Union’s OSCE observer mission, said “voting procedures were well-implemented” on election day.

However, he said the fact that there were no observers in almost half of the country’s polling stations “did not contribute to the transparency of the process”.

Amor added that “an unlevel playing field was evident throughout the campaign”.

READ: Mozambique votes in tense election after violent campaign

“The ruling party dominated the campaign in all provinces and benefited from the advantages of incumbency, including use of state resources.”

The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) said it was regrettable that irregularities in voter registration had not been addressed before the vote.

Local non-profit observer groups had reported the presence of 300,000 “ghost voters” — names not aligned with real voters — on the electoral roll in the southern Gaza province.

“Key aspects of the process such as the security challenges, voter registration, the campaign and selective accreditation of citizen observers posed challenges to the integrity of the elections,” said EISA Mozambique head and former Ghana President John Dramani Mahama. 

Former Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka said the Commonwealth’s observer mission “remained concerned about the impact” of the suspected ghost voters on the election.

However, observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had no such concerns.

READ: Mozambique’s Renamo party says members attacked after peace deal

“The pre-election and the voting phases of the 2019 electoral processes were generally peaceful and conducted in an orderly manner,” said Zimbabwean Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, the SADC observer head.

The election has been seen as a key test of the peace deal sealed in August between Frelimo and Renamo, which fought a brutal 1975-1992 civil war.

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Landslide kills 22 in southern Ethiopia

Officials say the landslide in the district of Konta occurred Sunday following 10 hours of heavy rains

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Landslide kills 22 in southern Ethiopia
(File photo)

Rescue workers on Tuesday used excavators to dig out bodies after a landslide in southern Ethiopia washed away homes and killed more than 20 people, a local official said. 

The landslide in the district of Konta occurred Sunday following 10 hours of heavy rains, said the official, Takele Tesfu.

“There are 22 people dead and we have only been able to dig up 17 using manpower and machine power,” Takele told reporters.

“So far, we cannot get the others, so tomorrow we will continue to dig.”  

He said the victims included nine women and six children.

While the district — located in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region — sees landslides with some regularity, Takele said this was the deadliest he could remember. 

“The area where this occurred is very mountainous, and this means the landslide was very dangerous,” he said. 

Ethiopia is nearing the end of its rainy season, but security forces are nonetheless relocating some families for fear that more rain in the coming days could lead to similar disasters, Takele said.

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Mozambique votes in tense election after violent campaign

Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.

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Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.

The Frelimo party, which has ruled the impoverished southern African nation since independence from Portugal in 1975, is widely expected to again beat its arch-rival Renamo, a former rebel group turned main opposition party.

President Filipe Nyusi, who cast his ballot as polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT), called on voters to show “the world we stand for democracy and tolerance”.

“Mozambique has chosen to move forward peacefully,” he said, adding that more than more than 4,000 observers had been deployed in the most-watched election in the country’s history.

“Let’s continue this process in a serene way. Peace means that everything must be done according to the rules.”

Nyusi, 60, is forecast to win a second five-year term despite his popularity taking a hit from chronic unrest and a financial crisis linked to alleged state corruption.

While the election is expected to see regional wins for Renamo, few think Frelimo will be unseated from government after 44 years at the helm.

“Frelimo is a machine,” said Castro Davis, a 42-year-old public servant in the capital Maputo, predicting a “straight-forward victory.” 

Elena Jorge, 50, told AFP she wants Renamo to win “but people know that these elections will not be free, fair or transparent — but we have hope.”

Around 13 million of Mozambique’s 30 million citizens are registered to vote at more than 20,000 polling booths, which closes at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT).

Renamo is predicted to take control of three to five of Mozambique’s 10 provinces for the first time following a change of law allowing voters to elect provincial governors.

“This election will be a test for democracy,” said Ericino de Salema of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

“For the first time, the political geography of the country may change substantially, it may even lead to confrontation.”

Renamo’s candidate Ossufo Momade, 58, heads a party of former anti-communist rebels who fought a brutal civil war with Frelimo from 1975-1992, devastating the economy and leaving almost one million people dead. 

Renamo picked up arms again in 2013 to 2016, but tension continued until Nyusi and Momade signed a peace deal in August. 

But an armed breakaway faction of Renamo has rejected Momade’s candidacy and threatened to attack campaign events, raising fears the presidential, parliamentary and provincial polls could be marred by bloodshed.

The six-week campaign was one of the most violent in the country’s turbulent history, with candidates threatened, election material destroyed, and deadly clashes breaking out between supporters.

The opposition has already accused Frelimo of tampering with the vote.

Enrolment has more than doubled in the southeastern Gaza province, a Frelimo bastion, and civil society groups have expressed concern about the size of the increase.

They also estimate that there are around 300,000 “ghost voters” on electoral rolls — names on the electoral roll not aligned with real, potential voters.

“We definitely have some irregularities that put stains on the whole process,” said Hermenegildo Mulhovo of election monitoring group Sala da Paz.

The situation escalated last week, when the head of a local election observation mission was shot dead by members of a special police unit in Gaza’s capital Xai-Xai.

Lutero Simango, an MP of the country’s third biggest party MDM, accused Frelimo of “using all state means, including police and secret services, to intimidate people”.

Frelimo suffered its worst result at the ballot box — 51.8 percent — in local elections last year and has been severely weakened in recent years.

In 2016 it was revealed the government secretly borrowed $2 billion, sparking the worst financial crisis in the country’s history and uncovering a vast corruption network with links to the regime.

The government is also battling to recover from two devastating cyclones in March which displaced nearly two million people. 

And a shadowy jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds in the far north has delayed development of one of the government’s biggest selling points — the discovery of vast gas reserves that is hoped to put billions in state coffers and lift millions out of poverty.

The instability has already forced the National Election Commission to close 10 polling booths, however first Preliminary results are expected to be announced on Thursday. 

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