In Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, a small team of rangers equipped with thermal imaging cameras and drones is fighting back against an onslaught of heavily-armed poachers.
As day bleeds into night in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, Ntayia Lema Langas, the deputy warden of the Mara Conservancy, barrels across the landscape in a Land Rover flanked by rangers, crossing an invisible border into neighbouring Tanzania.
A pickup full of Tanzanian rangers heading back across the border stops and the vehicles’ occupants greet each other. A senior officer shows photographs of poachers they had arrested earlier in the day at a makeshift camp. He flicks through photographs on his smartphone of hacked zebra meat, spread out on the dry grassland.
After the brief meeting, 30-year-old Langas continues the journey with his troops. They park behind shrubs at two strategic points facing an escarpment. A tiny sliver of Moon smiles high in the black sky while flashes of torchlight twinkle in the distance. Sylvia Nashipai, a 24-year-old ranger who joined the Conservancy in 2016, stands in front of the car, the other rangers scanning the escarpment for torchlight and movement.
The expanse of savannah breathes gently as crickets chirp, the calm broken by the occasional crackle from the radio followed by directives from Langas. He scans the area through a forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR) strapped on to his car, and a monitor used to follow the images and direct the camera. Before, the rangers used torches, radios and their naked eyes and ears. Now they use the infrared camera and handheld thermal cameras that can detect the body heat of poachers and animals up to three kilometers away. Armed with this information, Langas’s rangers can chase and apprehend them in under an hour.
“It’s difficult to ambush poachers without this camera,” Langas tells me the following day. “A lot of arrests have been made – I think more than 100 now, I don’t have the exact figures.” Recently, Langas has caught dozens of poachers who have been turned over and prosecuted. In this area, most of them kill for bush meat, but rangers also have to chase elephant poachers who roam the Maasai Mara, a vast stretch of savannah that is also home to populations of lions, leopards and cheetahs.
On this occasion, no arrests are made. As the rangers set out to leave, one of the four-wheel drives fails to start. A handful of them gather behind and push the vehicle until the engine splutters back to life. The headlights flood the landscape ahead and the two vehicles full of tired workers rumble off into the distance.
Despite the efforts of Kenyan rangers, elephant and rhino poaching numbers remain at alarming levels. Conservationists estimate that, currently, more elephants in Africa are being killed than born. Despite an increase in ivory seizures and a declining number of elephants being killed for their tusks over the past five years, at least 20,000 elephants were killed in 2015 alone, according to data collected by the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species. The black rhino remains critically endangered; in countries such as Kenya, they have been gathered in sanctuaries and are guarded by armed wildlife rangers. China, one of the world’s biggest markets for ivory and rhino horn, began enforcing an ivory ban on January 1, 2018, but new frontiers for the illicit trade in Asia continue to emerge.
In 2012, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched the Wildlife Crime Technology Project, an initiative focused on using technology to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable species. Initially supported by Google and in collaboration with companies such as FLIR and hardware giant CISCO, the project has the ambitious mission of achieving through technology what conservation groups and national wildlife services have failed to do so far: to make wildlife reserves poacher-proof.
Imeet conservation engineer Eric Becker in November 2017 on the edge of an airstrip scratched into the vast green plains of the Maasai Mara, one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife reserves bordering Tanzania.
Becker, a tall, dark-haired and bespectacled man who describes himself as a “nerd” is reserved, often retreating to the sidelines, bowing his head to inhale from a silver box-shaped e-cigarette. He initially seems uncertain as to how much to divulge to me. Born into a family of military engineers who have worked on fighter jets and weaponry, he is used to dealing with highly classified information. He has worked as an engineer for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Special Forces. At DARPA, where he worked as a contractor, he developed technologies the public doesn’t know exist: prototypes which, according to Becker, are 50 years ahead of commercial technology.
“Everything they did was science fiction,” Becker says about DARPA at our camp. He mentions synthetic blood they invented, and a pod with robotic hands that can be placed over wounded soldiers for doctors to treat remotely.
Becker talks sparingly about his inventions for the US military, but when he talks about his experiments with anti-poaching technology his words soon flow. A natural inventor, he is perpetually weighing up the precision and possibilities of different technologies and how they can be combined, stretched and shaped in different ways.
Becker was contracted by the WWF in 2014 because of his background in drone R&D. A wildlife organisation deploying in remote parts of Africa surveillance and tactical communications technology traditionally used by the US military, has raised concerns over privacy, human rights and data collection among conservationists. In some countries, legal frameworks for the use of surveillance technology may be lax or ill-defined. Although Becker is proud of some of the combat technology he developed, “Making it like a video game to kill people just wasn’t my thing,” he tells me.
He soon found that developing low-cost surveillance and tactical technology that could survive the rugged terrain of national parks in Africa and Asia came with a specific set of challenges. For example, with a lack of consistent power supply and basic infrastructure in many of the parks the WWF works in, battery life is an important consideration. Another early project, involving the use of drones as a deterrent for poaching in Namibia, had to be shut down in 2017 as drones became unpopular with African governments concerned about external surveillance.
Becker began experimenting with thermal cameras, repackaging the sensors within FLIR units that have been used by the US military for years for night operations. He then developed algorithms that could help them identify human silhouettes and vehicles, and trigger alerts in a control room. He mounted the cameras around a stretch of fence line in Lake Nakuru, a government-run rhino sanctuary. In the national park located in the city of Nakuru, Kenya’s third-largest city, poachers were known to enter through a 20-kilometre stretch of fence line, kill rhinos, saw their horns off and disappear into the bright lights and congested streets in the distance.
In 2016, Becker approached Brian Heath, the conservationist who runs the Mara Conservancy. Heath, who witnessed some of the most brutal days of elephant poaching in Kenya, was “sceptical” of Becker’s technological approach. His rangers were equipped with .303 calibre rifles from the first and second world wars, a handful of old radios and a small fleet of Nato-green Land Rovers. Unlike other parts of Kenya and East Africa, there were few sophisticated armed poaching rings operating in his stretch of the Maasai Mara National Reserve known as the Mara Triangle.
Bush-meat poachers from Tanzania would walk down a steep escarpment that acted as a natural frontier between the two countries. They would lay hundreds of snares during the day before returning at night to collect their kill. The snares would injure and sometimes kill dozens of animals every year – leopards, lions, elephants, zebras and giraffes – even if the poachers never intended to catch them. Most poachers would use bow and arrows and spears, and rarely fought with rangers or resist arrest. The main problem for Heath and his team of rangers was that they simply couldn’t see the poachers in the dark.
After visiting the Mara Conservancy, where he shadowed the rangers on day and night foot patrols, Becker decided to mount a FLIR camera on to a car. He wanted to operate it like a ground-level drone. The camera would be monitored by a commander, who then directed rangers using handheld cameras. Unlike night-vision cameras, which rely on moonlight and starlight to function, heat-detecting thermal cameras can operate during the daytime and in the pitch-black night, helping rangers scan areas up to three kilometres away.
Around the same time, in March 2016, Becker installed static thermal cameras capable of identifying human forms and vehicles near a fence line often used by poachers in the national park of Lake Nakuru, around 300 kilometres north of Heath’s conservancy.
“In the past, we would never have found these people,” Heath says. “Now the poachers are saying it’s just not worth going out, because the chance of getting caught is getting higher and higher. It has been a big deterrent.”
Heath says the technology could be useful in ivory-poaching hotspots, where the H&K G3s and Kalashnikovs of national rangers are often matched by skilled gangs, who are typically armed with similar weaponry.
In January 2018, Colby Loucks, the head of the WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology project, met senior officials from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Jeff Frank, vice president of global product strategy at FLIR, to discuss the possibility of rolling out the technology in the country’s national parks. They told WIRED that they are planning to deploy the technology in rhino sanctuaries and reserves throughout the country.
After the cameras were deployed at Lake Nakuru, Becker received a request from the Kenyan government: “They wanted this system on the Somali border to monitor the Somalis coming in.” He turned it down. “We need to make sure they’re focused on the parks,” he says.
While in the Maasai Mara with Becker I met Marc Goss, manager of the Mara Elephant Project, which also works to combat poaching in the reserve. Dressed in a brown ranger’s uniform with tortoiseshell aviator glasses, Goss stands next to his parked helicopter smoking and talking on his phone in Swahili. Adults and barefoot children gather to marvel at the helicopter. Born in Kenya, Goss is one of a cast of “Kenya cowboys” or white Kenyans, who are key figures in the conservation movement.
He met Becker through George Powell, a conservation biologist who works with Becker on the Wildlife Crime Technology Project. Goss befriended Becker and introduced him to Heath in 2015, while Becker and Powell were touring Kenya looking for potential sites to experiment with their drones. Goss had been using them to scare elephants away from farms they often raided for food.
While Goss’s work has focused on breaking down poaching rings, in recent years his organisation The Mara Elephant Project has become more concerned with the escalating conflict between humans and elephants. Farmers are fencing off land and planting and grazing cattle closer to national parks and the rangelands between the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. “As people continue to spread, farm and herd more livestock, the area for elephants to live in gets smaller and smaller,” Goss explains over a cup of coffee at our camp.
Goss and his team fitted elephants with collars containing electronic GPS trackers, and monitored their movements through a smartphone with the STE Tracking App, developed by Vulcan, a private company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Once the elephants started heading into villages and farmlands to raid crops, Goss would fly out in his helicopter and shoo them away to prevent them from getting speared or killed by villagers and farmers.
In recent months, he has managed to obtain a licence from the Kenyan Ministry of Defence to operate two drones that he hopes will replace his helicopter – which costs an expensive £280 an hour to run – as a means of pushing the marauding elephants away. He and Becker have discussed strapping a thermal camera to the drone to make it easier to shoo the animals away at night. Goss also plans to use the drone to spray chilli powder over the elephants as a means to keep them away.
We take off in the helicopter with Goss and Becker. Cumulus clouds and blue skies unroll before us, green grasses and hippopotamuses bathing in the winding brown rivers below. The landscape soon fades into arid, treeless patches of land dotted with small farms fenced off with dry acacia branches.
We touch down in the plush camp once owned by Paul Allen and are greeted by a young white Kenyan man in a cowboy hat, a large knife sheathed in leather on his hip. Standing next to him is an older, squinting South African man with the gravelly voice of a smoker.
Goss and Becker begin setting up their DJI Phantom drone. There had been reports of a large old bull elephant that had been injured and was stumbling across the escarpment. Goss used the drone to locate the animal and circled the helicopter low to push it out into a clearing where he could be treated by a vet. As Goss edges closer towards the striken elephant in the helicopter, Campaign Lino, a veterinarian with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, shoots it with a tranquillizer from the window.
As we rumble across the Mara in a shiny white WWF jeep we are accompanied by Peter Lokitela, a tall, slender man with sharp brown eyes who was born in the Turkana region of Kenya, an area known for its fierce cattle-raiding culture and the discovery of the skeleton of the Turkana Boy, the earliest-known human remains.
Lokitela works for the WWF’s Kenya office on anti-poaching and speaks frankly about the hardship he has faced as a ranger: finding bloody elephant carcasses encircled by vultures; camping in the open bush; chasing poachers for months on end and violent shoot-outs in which Rangers had been killed. Lokitela’s stories about past operations often end abruptly with accounts of violent encounters with poachers.
“When you get poachers in the bush and they’re armed, what do you discuss with them?” says Lokitela. The KWS has also long been rumored to have a policy of shooting poachers on sight, introduced by paleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, who is now chairman of the organisation. Leakey founded KWS in 1989, during the height of the poaching crisis, and is seen as the man responsible for the militarization of modern conservation in Kenya, through his use of helicopter gunships and the deployment of Maasai warriors.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused the KWS of involvement in disappearances and counterterrorism operations, and claim the organisation lacks transparent processes through which rangers who commit abuses can be held accountable.
Later, I meet Leakey at his office at the Nairobi-based Turkana Basin Institute. On a long, squat shelf in the corner of his office rest an assortment of ornaments: a model of a museum on the origins of mankind that he plans to build in northern Kenya, a skull his mother discovered in 1959 in Tanzania and a model of dung beetle rolling a ball of manure given by a friend as a joke.
For Leakey, the big challenge in the fight against poaching isn’t technology, but managing a team of dissatisfied, ill-equipped and underpaid rangers. “I fear that security through technology, which is quite costly, is drawing more potential funding away from the real issues,” he tells me as he sits behind his immaculately organized desk.
“If we could be less corrupt and steal less money in KWS, we could probably manage without donor support, except for vehicles, planes and things like that. But we’ve had a lot of holes. It’s been like a sieve.”
For Eric Becker, constant surveillance could mean greater accountability and mean that rangers are less likely to conspire with poachers or steal seized ivory or rhino horn.
In January 2018, he began work at a national park in Zambia, an ivory-poaching hotspot. With the support of CISCO, Becker will install mobile-phone towers fitted with radios and antennas across a 60-kilometre stretch of Lake Itezhi-Tezhi in Kafue National Park. He will mount thermal cameras that can rotate 360° and are trained to detect the movement of dugout fishing canoes – a common method of transport for poachers.
The rangers will be trained to use a sophisticated tactical application, the Android Team Assault Kit, used by the Special Forces and US law enforcement, which they will use to send back images to central command via a secure Wi-Fi network. If this project, on schedule to be up and running this spring, proves successful, the WWF plans to roll it out in other areas where wildlife species remain under threat from poaching.
In Becker’s future vision of a wildlife park, glowing figures of elephants, lions, zebras and giraffes move across computer screens in a control room. Fatigue-clad wardens monitor the area in towers fitted with rotating thermal cameras, sensors and camera traps, placed within the savannahs and the thicket. Elephants are tagged with small devices that translate their cries and calls. Gunshot detectors alert central command to incursions by poachers.
Under the moonlight, teams of rangers would rally with real-time information and directives beamed to their smartphones. They would launch micro-drones fitted with thermal cameras to find their target. They would move in on the poachers and arrest them. Ideally, no animal or human would be killed in this process. In the daylight, rangers would ferry tourists around the park. As they approach wildlife, sensors would be triggered and a virtual tour guide would tell them about the animal and their habitat. The animals would be perpetually monitored and protected.
Back in the real-world control room at Lake Nakuru, a ranger monitors a computer screen containing feeds from 16 cameras across the fence line, near where one notorious poacher who was killed once lived. An alert is tripped whenever there is movement and the ranger must acknowledge everyone with a keystroke or a click of the mouse. Becker had to “dumb down” the system to the only trip off alerts when there is movement from humans and vehicles, before dividing them into “classified” and “unclassified.” Updates from the system are sent daily to the park’s warden.
“It just keeps people honest,” Becker tells me. “They know that Big Brother is watching.” Becker also envisions a national “war room” in Nairobi where real-time footage and information from the parks could be fed. In the coming months, he’s hoping to experiment with wireless camera traps that could send images back to base immediately.
At nightfall at Lake Nakuru, we head out on patrol with the rhinoceros squad. They spot a cluster of three rhinos near the lake, shimmering with bright city lights in the distance. The Rangers, brandishing their G3s and AK-47s, must monitor the huge mammals throughout the night.
Steven Juma Were, a portly sergeant with the rhino squad who has been with the KWS for 24 years, has seen camera traps and new technologies come and go. Over the past two years the cameras have “helped a lot”, he says, particularly with securing this particular boundary. Becker demonstrates to the rangers how the FLIR cameras work in comparison to the night vision.
The poachers, the sergeant says, have already found a new entry point. But Becker, and his vision of a future park, is edging closer. The thermal cameras mounted on towers will continue scanning the surface of the lake. His electronic eyes in the sky, constantly monitoring man