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Advancing the war against poaching

Staff Writer
With experts projecting a decline in diamond mining and sales over the next decade, Botswana's 'new gem' is the eco-tourism sector which made P8 billion last year. But the sector is grappling with a threat that won't go away - poachers armed to the teeth. In this two-part interview, Staff Writer GOTHATAONE MOENG reports on the journey with World Wildlife Fund senior programme officer for African Species Conservation Matthew Lewis about how military technologies and community participation in conservation are the way forward. Lewis was in Botswana as a guest of the American Embassy where he spoke about the economic value of wildlife conservation

MMEGI: One of the issues that has consistently come up during your talks here in Kasane has been the rise in poaching worldwide, the Southern African region included. You have also talked about the need for the use of more sophisticated methods against poaching.  Can you tell me about these new methods that countries should be looking into?

LEWIS: One of the projects that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is implementing is a project funded by Google Impact Award and it is investigating appropriate technology that can help anti-poaching efforts. Primarily, we are looking at technologies like Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, small remote-controlled airplanes that have sensors on them that can help rangers detect poachers in the bush.  And so what we are looking at is a range of technologies that are out there that can either give an edge to the rangers because what they are facing out there are poachers who are more and more sophisticated. 

Especially what we have seen in South Africa is that the poaching of rhinos has become a really sophisticated crime. It has involved people in some cases using night vision goggles to poach rhinos at night.  In some cases they are using helicopters. So the sophistication of poachers has meant that rangers need to respond with their own level of sophistication, it is no longer enough to do things the way they have been done in the last 50 or 60 years where it's just guys on patrol with very basic equipment. We need to look at all the technologies available that can give them an edge - things like night vision technology, unmanned aerial vehicle and small remote-controlled airplanes and infra-red cameras that can see at night.

It is also about safety for these guys who are patrolling at night because it is very dangerous in the bush at night, where there are lions, elephants and buffaloes - all dangerous animals. If they can't see what's in front of them, they can get killed or injured by wild animals. The ability to see what's out there at night can really help them and give them an edge. So those are the varieties of technologies that we are looking at, but we are also trying to do it in an integrated way, so looking at tracking the animals themselves and combining that with the technology of catching poachers at night and giving the ranger a really wide variety of information, about where the animals are and where the poachers could be. 

MMEGI: In what countries have you been testing these new technologies?

LEWIS: We have been testing it in Namibia, which is the pilot site for our work on the technology. The Namibian government started working on it about three years ago and it was their own idea.  Which is one of the reasons we chose to work there because they were already working on it and were open to expanding  it.  They had developed a number of systems of their own internally, and we were helping under this project, of expanding, to skill them up to the next level of sophistication to really make an impact to prevent poaching before it starts.

MMEGI: What has its success rate been?

LEWIS: So far the project has been a little slow getting off the ground, but we have proven that you can use an unmanned aerial vehicle to detect an animal that is fitted with an ID tag and you can fly over it and be able to find out where that animal is. We have proven that the technology can work so the next step is to relay that information back to the rangers, and that is what we are working on. If we increase that technology, the rangers would be able to know where the rhino is and if the unmanned aerial vehicle has the ability to detect the poachers, they would have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of them. They would know where the animals are, where the potential poachers are, and they would know where to respond.

MMEGI: Are these technologies site specific? For example if Botswana wants to use some of them, would we have to develop technologies specific to Botswana?

LEWIS: Yes, I think so.  That is something that we learned very quickly that you have to respond to the situation at the site you are working in. In fact in Namibia, we have chosen to work at a pilot site only in one national park, to prove the technology first, to show that it can work, before using it on a much larger scale.  If you try to start too large in a place like Chobe National Park before really knowing your capabilities, I think it would be really challenging.  So what we really need to do is prove it on a small scale first and then build it up to challenge the bigger problem.

MMEGI: How much was the funding that you got for this project from Google?

LEWIS: Our total grant from Google was for US$ 5million over three years, but that was to work in four countries over two continents, Africa and Asia,  so we have divided that money between the four sites.  So the total fund that would go to Namibia for this project would be roughly US$500,000, which sounds like quite a lot of money, but when you are talking about this level of sophisticated technology it does not really go far because the systems themselves are very expensive, and a lot of the systems have been developed for the defence industry, for military application. Militaries often have higher budgets than the natural resources sector do, so they can afford that very sophisticated technology where a national park ranger wouldn't, so our challenge is to find what is affordable but can still do what we need it to do.

MMEGI:  For other countries within the region who are interested in going for these technologies, would there be funding from the WWF?

LEWIS: We have not yet set the second site where we are going to work in Africa for this project, but we have committed to working in two sites on this continent. Namibia is the first site and we are going through a process right now to determine where the second

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MMEGI: One of the other ways you have said poaching can be tackled is through community-based natural resource management, where local communities know the benefits of wildlife, and are therefore willing to protect them.  But we have heard over the last meetings you have had that people here have some sort of detachment from the animals, but we also heard consistently that people used to co-exist with these animals.  What do you think has caused that shift from a harmonious co-existence to a situation where communities are resentful of wildlife?

LEWIS: I am not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in history people forgot how to live with animals. It's kind of tragic because people have lived with elephants and wildlife in Africa since the dawn of time. Human life evolved in Africa, elephants evolved in Africa, and obviously these two species evolved together and have co-existed for thousands of years. But at some point in recent history, the level of conflict between the two species grew to such a high level that both species have really suffered.

Humans suffer because the elephants raid crops and damage infrastructure, destroy water tanks and buildings and they kill people, and elephants suffer as well because people often take retaliation against them.  It's a lose-lose situation, and what we need to do is to figure out how to change that from a lose-lose situation where both are suffering, to a win-win, to figure out how we can live together without killing each other. To some degree, we are going to have to realise that some forms of making a living are not going to be compatible with living within an elephant area.

If you are living in an elephant quarter, where you know elephants are going to want to move freely between two points, and Kasane is a great example because here animals need to come to the water, to the Chobe River, it's a necessity for their lives, but we know the developments in this area have been increasing, so that is cutting off the area in which they can move freely to the water.  We know that certain types of land uses are not going to be compatible with elephant quarters.

To some degree, getting to the root cause of the conflict is what needs to be done, rather than what I call band-aid solutions that only put temporary band-aid on the problem and do not address the root cause. Have humans encroached on elephant areas, are buildings, infrastructure taking away areas that elephants need? Then we need to look at different types of land-uses that will be compatible with living in an elephant area.  For example, farming in an elephant quarter is probably not the wisest land use. You know there is going to be high levels of conflict, but maybe there is a way people can live in such an area and take up a different type of livelihood rather than farming.

MMEGI: So essentially, humans have encroached on areas where animals used to live?

LEWIS: I would say that in the past, because people were few in numbers, people knew how to live with animals, and they accepted it as a fact of life that they would have some level of conflict with wildlife, but they had lifestyles that were somewhat compatible.  But as our population has grown, our infrastructure has grown, the land we need to cultivate food has increased, so we are moving further and further into areas that used to be wilderness and I think that has led to some degree to the high level of conflict that we see nowadays. People have forgotten what the traditional ways of living with wildlife were.

MMEGI: In your experience, working with Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRMS) programmes in Africa, what is the best approach for them to be effective? What does the community need to do, and what does the government need to do?

LEWIS: There are a number of things that need to happen, one of them is a policy framework. The government needs to realise that people have some rights over natural resources, that is the fundamental idea behind CBNRMs, communities are the ones managing the resources, so it must involve policy that enables that. It's the government trusting the community to be able to manage the resources, but at the same time the government committing to help the communities to get them off the ground, so they can manage their resources effectively and sustainably. People really need to know what it involves to have sustainable management of natural resources.  It's a concept that comes easily to a lot of people especially those that deal with farming. A farmer understands that if he has cows, he cannot kill all his cows in one year because then he would have no more cows left.  So people understand the concept but it needs a large education component so people can learn how to monitor the species, whether they are increasing or decreasing, so they can know how many they can hunt sustainably, how to make sure the animals are healthy.  So I think the key components are policy environment,  a firm commitment towards education and I think the third key element is funding.  Because communities usually need funding for start-up costs involved with starting CBNRMS.

MMEGI: That all sounds like it should be coming from the government side.  I am also interested in what communities need to do.

LEWIS: The major commitment for communities is to protect the resources.  They are committing that they are not going to poach, not going to overutilise and not going to hunt too much. But it is not just their commitment, I think there is a role there for government as well.

We started this conversation talking about poaching. If you take a local community that has committed to protecting their resources, say it is a community with elephants, they decide themselves to stop poaching the elephants, but they may be completely powerless if their neighbours decide to cross the border to poach the elephants. So the commitment from the government has to be helping the community protect those resources.That is where the role for the defence forces or police or park rangers come in.



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