How plan to fight terrorism gave birth to rhino sanctuary – by Njenga Hakeenah

As a nature lover, hearing about rhinos in Kenya and the tragedy that befell the country when 11 of these odd-toed ungulates died after a botched translocation in July 2018 is traumatising.

Before this, the only surviving Northern White Rhino male christened Sudan died of old age in March. This dealt a blow to continued efforts by scientists to breed the grazers and continue the lineage.

There’s never been a sadder moment for me.

Knowing that my children may never know a rhino or an elephant in real life is devastating. The wanton destruction of Kenya’s heritage is robbing the future generation outright.

The late Professor Wangari Maathai said that nature is very unforgiving. The conservationist and Nobel Peace Prize winner chose to walk a path many would not dare trod. She chose to be a hummingbird.

And it seems that the hummingbird spirit lives on in some of us. Efforts to ensure that the ungulates do not become extinct are underway, thanks to Project Ngulia which formally began in September 2014.

Conceived much earlier by Johan Bergenäs in 2010, Project Ngulia was an opportunity born out of terrorism and tragedy.

Bergenäs, who then worked for the Stimson Centre (an American think tank based in Washington DC), started a project on border protection in East Africa. The project was concerned with general security in East Africa spurred by the rise of militant group Al Shabab.

At the time, illegal wildlife trade proceeds were believed to be funding radicalisation and militarisation. It was thought that there was a link between rhino horn and ivory trading and terrorism.

As such, cutting the illegal funding sources would slow down terrorist activities enhancing security and peace in the region.

In 2013, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) gave the Kenyan government and the Stimson Centre a location to pilot a rhino protection project. Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, located in the Tsavo West National Park was proposed.

Stimson Centre invited Professor Fredrik Gustafsson and Linköping University (LiU) in January 2014 to take part in a technical feasibility study to figure out how technology could be deployed to augment rhino protection, thus curb poaching.

Ranger Training at Ngulia. Credit: Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary

In September 2014, KWS and Stimson with LiU as partner signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to develop and deploy technology in the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary.

The Stimson Centre then contracted iHub Consulting to carry out a design thinking process to determine what the project should entail and the best approach to deploy the technology.

This process ended in late 2014, establishing that it was necessary to digitise the workflow of the rangers via a mobile phone app before any high-end technology could be deployed in the sanctuary. The app would feed reports to an online dashboard for KWS Management.

Other technology such as sensors (thermal cameras, Bluetooth trackers and long-range radar) could then be added to create a comprehensive system that supplements the Rangers’ work, making the “boots on the ground” even more effective.

In January 2015, two IT companies, iHub in Nairobi and HiQ in Linköping, started a collaboration to develop the software platform for the project. September 2015 saw the first version of the app released, and about 50 smartphones handed out to the rangers in Ngulia.

Because the app required a stable internet connection to function, and network connectivity in Tsavo West was poor, Project Ngulia approached Airtel Kenya to help improve the network.

In early 2016, Airtel and Nokia upgraded the hardware at the nearest base station which provided nearly 90% 3G coverage to the Ngulia Sanctuary.

Airtel also donated SIM cards which they top up monthly with an internet, voice and data bundles that allows the project to run smoothly.

From September 2015 to late 2016, the first version of the mobile app was tested and improved. Continuous training in using the app was carried out for rangers in Ngulia by iHub Consulting, HiQ and LiU. Simultaneously, the online dashboard was developed and refined.

Namakula the rhino wearing the bluetooth anklet. Credit: Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary.

In the meantime, led by Prof Gustafsson at LiU, the project began developing a Bluetooth tracker and explore other non-invasive options for wildlife monitoring. His work has been greatly aided by the Kolmården Wildlife Park, located in Sweden that allows the project to use its Savannah area to carry out research and testing.

In January 2017, the Kolmården Foundation (KIS), the fundraising arm of the Kolmården Wildlife Park, increased its support to Project Ngulia by donating 25 new smartphones and co-funding a new version of the app and dashboard. Courtesy of KIS’ support, Version 2 of the mobile app and management dashboard were presented to the rangers in Ngulia in 2017 March.

The workflow of the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary is now fully digitised greatly enhancing the command, control and communication functions as well as species monitoring.

This story is adapted from a piece originally published on www.exchange.co.tz. Main image credit: Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary.

About the Entry

  • Blogger name | Njenga Hakeenah
  • Site name | The Exchange
  • Site URL | www.exchange.co.tz
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