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How digital innovation is safeguarding wildlife conservation

A ranger tracks wild zebras at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Nanyuki, Meru County. [The Standard]

Every morning at 6 am, three men, clad in full wildlife rangers’ regalia, convene in the control room of the expansive Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Meru County, with a clear mission at hand.

Despite the ethereal appearance cast by the early morning fog, they diligently get cracking.

Over the next eight to 12 hours, they will monitor the screens before them, collecting, collating, and relaying data, occasionally reaching for their ‘walkie-talkies’. Their mission? To safeguard the 260 rhinos and numerous herds of elephants, all from the comfort of their seats.

This task is facilitated by EarthRanger, a cutting-edge digital software aiding in wildlife conservation efforts.

John Kirui, the Head of Radio Communication at Lewa Conservancy, elucidates that EarthRanger is an online platform facilitating effective monitoring, data collection, collation, visualisation, and communication.

Usually, managers will use this platform to monitor the movement of collared wild animals in real-time, discerning crucial insights into animal behavior, particularly that of rhinos, a critically endangered species. The information is displayed on screens at the Joint Operations and Communications Center (JOCC).

“Through this software, managing things on the ground has become very easy…Coordinating security operations has become very effective. There is a lot of accountability,” says Kirui.

A display of the EarthRanger platform in real-time as seen at the command center at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. [Betty Njeru, Standard]

How it works

The digital platform provides managers at the communication center with a full picture of what’s happening on the ground. They monitor collared rhinos, elephants, and lions, in turn contributing to their population growth.

The data is displayed in real-time and mapped out to identify areas where there could be threats.

According to the Head of Conservation and Wildlife at Lewa, Dr Dominic Maringa, each rhino is equipped with a tracking chip embedded in its horns, facilitating precise monitoring of their movements. One such rhino is Jakwai, who has known the conservancy to be home for years.

This data not only aids in understanding animal behavior such as feeding habits, and migration patterns, but also helps conservationists and scientists in devising effective strategies for wildlife protection.

The EarthRanger platform also facilitates communication between the control room and field rangers, ensuring swift responses to rhino sightings or potential threats.

The use of collars, transmitters, and camera traps provides additional insights into wildlife activities, significantly enhancing monitoring capabilities.

A rhino is embedded with a tracking chip in its horns. [ The Standard]

Consequently, the frequency of rhino sightings has increased, with animals now being spotted every two and a half days, compared to longer intervals previously.

 “We have witnessed a tremendous growth of rhinos thanks to our use of technology and innovation,” he says.

“We have also engaged patrol teams and equipped them with monitoring gadgets. This way, they can tell which areas are frequently patrolled and which aren’t, and you can query why a certain area is not being frequented and conduct a survey,” says Dr Maringa.

The outcomes of the survey will inform their decision-making.

The platform, enabled by the Lora network equally helps monitor weather patterns. “Wildlife is better protected and reported. Animals could even die before, but now it is more efficient to report the sick ones,” Dr Maringa says.

Head of Wildlife and Conservation at LEWA, Dr Dominic Maringa. [Betty Njeru, Standard]

Human-Wildlife conflict

As cases of human-wildlife conflict continue to rise in Kenya, communities around Lewa and Borana conservancies have the EarthRanger platform to thank.

Since its introduction in 2017, awareness levels have gone up due to engaging with the communities, and cases of human-wildlife conflict reduced significantly.

“We can collate animal behavior and way of movement. We then alert the rangers who are dispatched to contain the ‘bad’ situation, and we are able to manage the problem elephants and wade away human-wildlife conflict,” the Conservation and Wildlife Head explains. 

One of its successes, he adds is that the number of rhinos in the vast conservancy has peaked, surpassing the national threshold by six (6) per cent, annually.

Other conservancies in Northern Kenya have taken a cue and installed the digital tool. “We can communicate on any suspicious movement with other conservancies and call police or KWS when need be.”

Rangers conduct aerial surveillance to assess the security situation. [Standard]

Concerns on Data Safety

Despite the immense benefits, concerns regarding data safety persist.

However, Kirui reassures that EarthRanger employs stringent encryption measures, safeguarding data integrity.

“Data is safe,” he says. “There is always power back-up for when the main grids go down,” he responds when queried on what happens when power outages hit.

Additionally, Dr. Maringa emphasises the transformative potential of innovation, not only in protecting wildlife but also in benefiting surrounding communities.

“Innovation is the future. It not only helps animals but communities too,” he says.

Through the integration of digital innovation, conservation efforts at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy have witnessed unprecedented success, exemplifying a model for wildlife preservation in the modern age.

Now, Jakwai, her family, and friends can roam the 62,000-acre piece of land freely.

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