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Global Ideas

Swapping guns for smart phones in the fight against poaching

Poaching remains a serious existential threat for many species, in spite of global efforts to combat it. But an innovative app could help thwart poachers in remote areas and beyond.

The digital age might be a good thing for man, but the same doesn't ring true for beast. Mobile technology has enabled wildlife traffickers to decimate animal stock around the world by placing a simple phone call. And that is a massive problem.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Southeast Asia is ground zero for setting the pace toward an extinction crisis. The organization lists 150 land and water species native to the region as critically endangered. Some face being eaten out of existence; yet others are poised to be eradicated as a result of wildlife trafficking.

In Central Africa, studies estimate that systematic poaching has resulted in the loss of 100,000 forest elephants - a 64 percent decline over the past 10 years.

But rather than engage poachers in firefights bullet for bullet - which is dangerous, not to mention being a drain on resources - an international consortium of conservation organizations has embarked on a new high-tech strategy to combat such losses.

Hunting the illegal hunters

New York-based nonprofit organization Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), working with seven conservation groups, has developed software aimed at helping rangers in remote locations to anticipate poaching activity rather than merely reacting to it.

The SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) application, as it is known, provides users with information on illegal hunting, telling them what happened and where. Designed to work in tandem with GPS-enabled devices, such as heavy-duty cell phones, it also allows conservation managers to map and follow a ranger's activities.

Zebras in the wild

Certain species stand to benefit from the use of the SMART app

"You can collect data on where rangers have been, while on patrol, but also make observations on what they've seen," SMART program coordinator Alexa Montefiore said. "What's key about SMART is that it also operates in offline environments. It streamlines collecting data to make it more efficient."

What results is that patrol data is no longer stored at isolated field stations, rather transferred to and stored on secure servers at headquarters. After rangers enter information into a handheld device, this is then fed into data visualization software. From there, patterns emerge that Montefiore says enable site managers to direct rangers and resources to critical areas.

This ability to gather field intelligence on animals and well-armed poachers could be a game-changer - especially for rangers and non-governmental organizations facing multiple threats in the Global South.

Conservation groups have already implemented SMART in 130 protected areas across 29 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the technology is also slated to be adopted elsewhere.

Colombia, for example, intends to implement the free and open software throughout its vast network of 58 parks, Montefiore told DW.

Exploiting the mobile phone rise

Although not a cure-all for illegal activity, an observant ranger equipped with a handheld device capitalizes on two technological trends. Firstly, the system enables users to upload and share information over digital networks.

A lion in the grass

It will take a concerted and innovative effort to stop poachers from wiping out the majestic wildlife

Secondly, it's cheaper. "Rugged" mobile devices, which range in price from around 120 euros to 500 euros, are far cheaper than the old equipment, which was bulky and expensive. These days, smart phones function much like laptops did 10 years ago.

Moreover, mobile phone use in Asia and Africa has skyrocketed. According to a Gallup Poll from 2013, nearly two-thirds of all households in sub-Saharan Africa own at least one cell phone.

Smart phones also play a major role in modern life in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, for example, 58 percent of the urban population and 47 percent of the rural population own a mobile phone.

"In many of the places we're working, people already embrace technology," says Antony Lynam, program manager for the WCS Asia programs. "They're already using smart phones to text and communicate - SMART is another piece of technology that they can get into," Lynam explains. SMART is going to be rolled out at five or six pilot sites, he added.

App plus people power

Other research institutions and NGOs are testing similar approaches to conservation and the battle against poaching. For example, one crowd-funded conservation project hopes to put smart phones in the hands of the JulHoansi people, hunter- gatherers who serve as the guardians in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia.

The site Crowdfunder describes how the JulHoansi intend to use smart phones to monitor the illegal encroachment of cattle onto their ancestral homelands.

Elephant skull

In the right hands software could prevent elephants being slaughtered for their tusks

Yet another app called Sapelli is a mapping tool, created to help indigenous people living in the Congo Basin to monitor and chart the illegal activities of poachers operating in their area.

But Lynam says the technology is only as effective as those using it. "Poachers can compromise rangers quickly, especially in regions with luxury timber and high value species to poach," he says. "Pretty soon, traders get to these rangers and start to corrupt them."

Lynam, who is a lifelong wildlife conservationist, says traffickers pay rangers large sums of money to turn a blind eye.

Technological risks

But there are also risks to embracing such technology. If a wildlife trafficker were to bribe or hack their way into a SMART database, that could have devastating consequences for conservation personnel and the species they try to protect.

But the battle is on. And with well-organized traffickers having what Lynam describes as the "best communications gear, vehicles and networks of people" to help shift illegal goods through international checkpoints, anti-poaching efforts need good weapons, too.

Lynman welcomes SMART and its ability to reveal the true state of protected areas to stakeholders - and to provide conservationists with the information required to take action.

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