Locals, modern tech turn the once poachers’ paradise into animals haven

Rhinos inside Lewa Conservancy. [File, Standard]

Once a poachers’ paradise, the Lewa Conservancy has turned into one of the most secure homes for the black and white rhinos.

According to conservationists, poachers ran roughshod in the 1980s and 1990s as the demand for trophies in the black market rose.

But now, successful efforts to keep poachers at bay in the Meru ecosystem have been attributed to the involvement of the local community.

Illegal hunters in search of horns nearly wiped out the rhino population at the more than 63,000-acre conservancy.

With a kilo of the horn valued at about Sh2.2 million ($20,000), the rhino was an attractive target for the hunters, who took advantage of lax security.

But no case of poaching had been reported in the recent past.

“It is a well-organised syndicate. There are brokers, poachers and those who ship trophies out of the country,” says head of security John Pamera.

Realising that the poaching was being carried out by a well-established network that included people near the conservancy, he says, they partnered with the local community and deployed the latest technology to protect the rhino and other animals.

“We now have 240 rhinos. The last case of poaching was in 2019 when we lost two white rhinos."

Lewa installed Earth Ranger, one of the most advanced technologies that enables the security personnel to have real-time information on the location of each rhino.

Backed by the armed rangers and helicopters fitted with night vision equipment, the Joint Operations Command Centre team can watch all happenings in the sanctuary for 24 hours.

“We also have satellite collars and transmitters on some of our animals and tracking devices, which enable rangers to keep the animals safe from poachers,” says Mr Pamera.

Through the technology, the rangers can also locate injured animals and deploy veterinarians.

Purity Wamuyu, a ranger, inside the rhino observation centre at Lewa Conservancy. Modern technology and partnership with the local community has enabled the conservation to curb poaching of rhinos in the sanctuary, which also has elephants and other animals. From 10 black rhinos, the conservancy now has 240 black and white rhinos. [George Kaimenyi, Standard]

Pamera, who has been at the conservancy for over 20 years, says elephants are collared, and each time they approach the fence, a team is dispatched to drive them back.

Purity Wamuyu, a ranger from the local community, mans a 24-hour animal observation centre that receives reports on the rhinos.

“We also have staff on the outside, who report any security incident in the community,” she says.

The first female ranger at the conservancy says residents have security personnel’s mobile phone contacts for constant communication.

“We work closely with community and the police because the animal security team is part of a reserve of the police,” she says.

Rachel Wambui, a communication officer, says over 90 per cent of Lewa staff are from the community surrounding the conservancy.

Giving the locals a sense of ownership, she says, has helped in identifying suspicious activities, thus enabling the security officers to take appropriate measures.

She notes that, at one time, there were only 10 black rhinos. “Conservation is about people because we have a situation where wildlife and people have co-existed,” she says.


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