What good network means for elephants

Scattered in the Amboseli National Park no longer hamstrung by lack of communication technology due to a new network booster, rangers in Olgulului are not only able to track wildlife but communicate better and integrate with their families kilometers away.

22 Oct 2020 . 1,290 Views

In the 10 years that the Olgulului Community Wildlife Rangers have existed, the first market day of the month has always been an important event for them.

Once their salaries had been processed by the bank, teams would be dispatched to neighbouring trading centres on market day at this community near the Kenya-Tanzania border in Kajiado County.

The teams’ assignment would be to buy food for their families back home. Afterwards, they would seek out trusted relatives and neighbours to deliver the food and money to their families.

The area had no mobile phone coverage unless one opted to roam on the Vodacom’s network from neighbouring Tanzania; an expensive venture the rangers and the community could not afford.

All that changed, though, in September 2020 when Safaricom commissioned a base station at Olgulului trading centre on the edge of the Amboseli National Park, home of the African Elephant. The 45-meter tower will be able to serve communities that live within a radius of up to 30 kilometers. A tower that is bringing new possibilities in the region.

“These days we are able to send salaries directly to our ranger’s M-PESA accounts. In turn, they can transfer money to their families scattered around the county,” says Patrick Papatiti, the community’s director of operations.

Joseph Kihurani, a Radio Access Planner at Safaricom, was part of the team that ensured the booster station was set up in the right place to ensure the Olgulului community enjoys the array of services the network offers.

“ The tower has brought down the cost of communication for them and this is part of our commitment to keep Kenyans going. For instance, M-PESA minimizes the risk of having to do everything in cash,” says Kihurani.

Bringing a communication tower—to ensure quality and availability of network—to the community, he adds, opened a new world of possibilities for the community. The booster also brought with it privacy to communicate, an added value to the people who previously had to congregate in one place—in public—to talk with their friends and family.

The rangers are not the only beneficiaries of these benefits of better connectivity. Wildlife such as elephants, lions, zebra, leopard, and buffalos roaming the Amboseli National Park—crowned by Mount Kilimanjaro in its backdrop—can graze under the watchful eyes of the team of community rangers.

For the 76 rangers employed by the Olgulului Community Wildlife and posted in various stations around the national park, reliable and confidential information is their lifeblood.

The community of rangers was established at a time when animals such as elephants were at risk of extinction due to poaching. Elephants are poached for ivory, which attracts big money in some countries particularly those in the Far East.

Kenya has about 34,000 elephants, according to the KWS, and poaching has reduced by 90 per cent over the last 10 years.

The Olgulului Community rangers supplement conservation efforts by Kenya Wildlife Service. All rangers undergo training facilitated by KWS at its college in Manyani.

In a survey released at the end of 2019, KWS attributed the decline in poaching to this sort of collaboration and the resultant capacity-building that has happened in places like Olgulului. The incorporation of technology into the job has also played a role.

“Working alongside KWS, we have made good progress in conservation. Over the last two years, no elephant has been lost to poachers,” says Papatiti.

Unlike KWS that recruits from the national pool, the community’s rangers—including eight women—are drawn from the local population as they have intimate knowledge brought about by being born in the same environment with the wild animals.

This makes it easier for the rangers to collect intelligence from sources that are otherwise inaccessible to government employees.

The bad news, though, KWS reported in 2019, is that trade in bush meat, commercial poaching and human-wildlife conflict remain a significant threat to wildlife conservation in Kenya.

“Our current problem is invasion from game meat poachers. These target small animals such Dik-Diks, giraffes and gazelles,” says Papatiti.

The spike in game meat poaching, a result of a growing market in urban centres such as Namanga and across the border in Tanzania, poses serious threat to the target animals.

According to Papatiti, the meat is sold at throw-away prices, thereby creating an ever-expanding demand in the market.

The Safaricom network has greatly improved communication between the rangers, their scouts in the community and government agents as they do not rely on walkie-talkies—the two-way radio devices that send and receive communication using radio signals—but on the phone network. This meant, the rangers would be roaming on Tanzania’s Vodacom network.

“These days we receive intelligence in real-time whenever poachers are spotted. Today we have members of the community reaching out to us on a 24-hour basis,” he says.

Now, information is relayed to the rangers through voice calls, text messages, and WhatsApp. The rangers in turn can mobilise and get to the scene within an hour or so. Swift action that has caught and stopped poachers on their tracks.

Poachers are known to use spotlights to blind animals. Papatiti says these spotlights can be seen by villagers from great distances. Rangers are then able to receive reports of incidents as they happen.

At any one time, the rangers have teams doing foot patrols. Once intelligence about poachers’ presence is received, it is instantly relayed to teams on the ground who can then proceed to accost them.

Initially, the rangers would depend on information passed through a chain of word of mouth, sometimes hours and days after the poachers have left the scene.

“We would arrive at the scene only to find the remains of carcasses left behind with the poachers long gone. It was sometimes a very frustrating exercise,” Papatiti recalls.

Some poachers escaping arrest would sneak into Tanzania. But now, the rangers liaise with their counterparts across the border and vice versa of such incidences.

The Amboseli National Park is teeming with herds of elephant families and are known to invade farmlands particularly during drought. The rangers monitor their movement calling in KWS to move them from where invasion of farms and human-wildlife conflict seems imminent.

Lions from the park also prey on livestock kept by communities.

“Now that the community has access to us, we are able to receive and relay timely information that helps us to facilitate cohesive coexistence of humans and wildlife,” Papatiti concludes.

This story is part of the Safaricom@20 celebrations. For 20 years, Safaricom has developed new technologies and innovations to support and enable Kenyans to communicate, connect and to go beyond.



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