THE international poaching onslaught continues unabated. Rhinos and elephants are the primary targets and Namibia is not immune.
An increasing number of poaching incidents has been recorded here this year. The signs are clear that well-organised crime syndicates are turning their focus towards the country’s valuable wildlife.
However, Namibians are not sitting idly by. A range of strategies is being pursued and technology is just one of them.
Technology is a tool — it’s how you use it that counts. The ideal use of any tool requires a sound understanding of both the tool and the circumstances it’s used in. That understanding often requires targeted training. In this case, training in the use of the latest technology for people who understand the circumstances in the field, because they deal with them every day. Game rangers and high-tech may still feel like something of a mismatch to some, but that’s an outdated perception. The modern ranger is well-versed in the use of the latest technological tools, as well as having all the traditional bush skills to apply them in the field.
The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has known this for a long time and has been experimenting with a range of cutting-edge technologies for several years. That, combined with the fact that Namibia has an excellent conservation track record, brought the WWF Wildlife Crime Technology Project to Namibia in 2013 to support the work of the MET, already aided locally by WWF In Namibia. The project is funded through a Google Global Impact Award, which recognises Namibia’s innovative approaches and conservation successes.
As part of the first phase of the project, trials were held last year to field test a suite of technologies. This led to the MET choosing several integrated applications, with a focus on interception, counterintelligence, surveillance and remote tracking, that are now being implemented in strategic areas across the country. The WWF Wildlife Crime Technology Project is catalysing additional investments in these areas by the MET, many of them funded through the Game Products Trust Fund.
Technology is just one of many tools to fight poaching. Yet it is certainly motivating to have the latest technology at hand to help with a very daunting task. Fighting extremely well-organised and ruthless poachers backed by powerful syndicates requires excellent collaboration, preparation and training – at all levels. Through the WWF Wildlife Crime Technology Project, a small team of experts from the United States spent two weeks in Namibia in April, and another week here in June, to train MET staff during intensive courses. Wardens and rangers from a number of parks, already familiar with the technology from last year’s trials, participated in the training and considered it a great success. A part of the training was carried out at Waterberg Plateau Park and a part at Bwabwata National Park.
MET staff are excited about the project. They are keen to see it being used around the country, because there are a great variety of applications for it, with anti-poaching work being just one. ‘We all need to work together and share our skills’ was one of the main sentiments. The emphasis is on constantly using the technology so that it has a real meaning. Most of us have become used to and dependant on technology as our constant companion in the form of a mobile phone, laptop, GPS and other gadgets, yet technology should not be seen as the fix-all solution. Not out in the bush. Anti-poaching work is still very much about people in the field, boots on the ground — there, where the poachers are. This component continues to receive MET priority, with technology a toolbox that’s very valuable to have at hand.
MET also made it clear that the effective use of the technology is part of an overall strategy, including its integration into existing activities. One participant put some of the challenges being faced into context: ‘Poachers go to extremes. They will walk a hundred kilometres through the bush to pick up elephant tusks. We need to be prepared to find them.’ At the end of the training, the participants had completed hours of solo work using the technology and are ready to deploy it as needed. Real training is never without challenges or incidents, though. There were unplanned encounters with highly-poisonous snakes. There were anxious moments when working near water. Digital equipment and water don’t necessarily go well together, and crocodiles are common in Namibia’s north-eastern rivers.
The Namibian public, shocked by the poaching extremes in South Africa and elsewhere, is extremely worried by the increase in poaching in Namibia. Some have the feeling that not enough is being done to ensure that our country is as ready as it can be for a similar onslaught. Due to the recent poaching surge, the MET has taken a cautious approach towards divulging the capabilities of the technology being implemented, and is working quietly at its strategies.
While the concerned public obviously wants to ‘know more’, the MET has realised that it is not always wise to divulge capabilities, especially concerning technology and security. Rhino conservation in Namibia is complex. Both black and white rhinos occur right across the country in private reserves, communal conservancies and national parks. The risks are varied, and strategies need to be tailored to them. All the different groups need to work together — and use all the tools they can.
Fighting crime often depends on clandestine operations, on covert surveillance and informer networks. Namibia has a very positive record in fighting wildlife crime. The collaboration between the MET and the Namibian police, often with the active support of local communities, has led to arrests in many poaching cases and related incidents of trafficking of animal parts. Yet perhaps the greatest anti-poaching tool we have are our people.
The people who decide to be on the side of the rhinos and the elephants, rather than the bloody money. Who report suspicious activities, who provide information that helps to outsmart syndicates trying to infiltrate local communities. Who are proud of our national and global heritage. Who will help protect Namibia and its resources.
How can you help: Report any suspicious behaviour related to wildlife via toll-free sms to 55555. All messages are treated confidentially.