Amidst all the bad news in 2020, there was at least one silver lining. Kenya recently reported that not a single rhino was poached throughout 2020—something that hasn’t happened in the country in over two decades. What’s more, Kenya also saw record lows in the number of elephants poached—only 11 elephants were killed in 2020, the lowest-recorded total in the history of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and a sharp decrease from 350 a year just five years ago.
As the director of the KWS underlined, the authorities’ abilities to keep poaching low even amidst decreased footfall during the Covid-19 pandemic is “not just luck, it’s down to lots of hard work and dedication”. Indeed, Kenyan authorities have taken a number of critical steps towards implementing better anti-poaching policies in recent years and have deployed a number of innovative tools to stamp out the abhorrent practice—from high-tech secure radios from French company Ellipse Projects, to mobile app CyberTracker which has simplified patrols, to community engagement and ensuring that poachers face serious consequences.
An anti-eavesdropping solution from Ellipse Projects
One major step forward came in 2013, when the Kenya Wildlife Service carried out an international tender, won by French engineering company Ellipse Projects, to upgrade the KWS’s aging radio system. The investment in Ellipse Project’s’s cutting-edge secure radios, financed through a concessional loan through the French government, was a bid to outwit increasingly tech-savvy poachers able to eavesdrop on the analogue devices which the KWS had used for years.
The environmentally friendly system implemented by Ellipse Projects works by way of solar-powered radio infrastructures which talk to 800 portable and mobile terminals. The French trade and tourism minister at the time, Matthias Fekl, judged that the new radio system would help “not only to protect biodiversity but also improve security of wardens and tourists”—a prediction which has been born out. Ellipse Projects officially completed work on the infrastructure in 2017, just as incidents of poaching amongst all of Kenya’s prized animals, including elephants, giraffes, zebras, fawns, antelopes and buffaloes began to plummet.
CyberTracker app a boon to patrolling conservationists
Another technological tool has also aided the surveillance work of Kenyan anti-poaching forces: a mobile app and free GPS field data collecting system called CyberTracker. The spatial monitoring and reporting tool has greatly facilitated patrols—particularly given that the Kenyan rangers tasked with monitoring and safeguarding protected land often have to cover vast swathes of land, sometimes on foot and often at night-time. The sixteen community rangers who protect the 46,000 acre LUMO Community Wildlife Conservancy in Southwest Kenya, for example, frequently cover up to 40 km a day in their labour-intensive patrols.
CyberTracker’s user-friendly platform has made their job vastly easier by mapping the areas that have already been patrolled recently in real-time. The rangers can also add geo-referenced data for field observations, creating a library of sightings of flora and fauna, and generating precious statistics on the various concentrations of the conservancy as well as enabling the tracking of animal movements, something which plays a significant role in protecting them from poachers.
Community understanding and real consequences for poachers
While these technological solutions have proven extremely valuable tools for Kenyan rangers, more analogue developments have also contributed to the sea change in Kenya’s fight against poaching. For one thing, community engagement has proven key in helping people understand the incredible value of Kenyan wildlife. Kenyan conservationists have increasingly leaned on educational programmes emphasizing that while poaching might offer quick cash, the practice not only threatens critical wildlife populations, but also impacts the livelihoods of the millions of Kenyans who rely on the tourist industry. By working with communities in close contact with wildlife, rangers are able to stem potential poachers in the bud and incite people to report instances of poaching.
The final key to the crackdown on the maiming and killing of Kenya’s wildlife is ensuring that poachers receive appropriate judicial penalties. Successful prosecutions in Kenya have soared since the penalties were made more punitive and punishment more likely. These increased penalties are vital, because as Senior Justice Advisor Katto Wambua highlighted, the illegal wildlife trade is incredibly profitable: “in Kenya in 2010, when we were having high poaching rates, paying 40,000 Kenyan shilling (£282) was nothing to them (criminals) and that was the highest penalty they could get.” Modern-day poachers are not so easily let off the hook, however—by 2016, up to 90% of poaching prosecutions ended in convictions and jail time, acting as a strong deterrent for would-be beast-snatchers.
A remarkable turnaround allowing a zero-poaching dream
Between Ellipse Projects’ secure radio system against eavesdropping poachers, the CyberTracker app to facilitate rangers’ patrols, and ratcheting up both community engagement and penalties for poachers, Kenya appears to have devised a winning formula to curb poaching. At the peak of the poaching pandemic in 2013, the illegal trade in rhino horn—which can fetch more than the price of gold—caused the death of 59 rhinos, a staggering number given that there are only a little over 1000 rhinos left in the country.
The progress made since then is remarkable, and the fact that Kenya did not lose a single rhino to poaching in 2020 is particularly noteworthy given concerns that the decimation of the tourist industry amidst the coronavirus pandemic would both increase the threat of poaching as people’s livelihoods were taken away and leave far fewer observers to sound the alarm. Indeed, Kenya’s anti-poaching strategy has proven so successful in recent years that Brigadier John Waweru, the Director General of KWS, believes “it is not a pipe dream to get Kenya’s poaching level to zero.”