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How technology is helping Kenya win the war against poaching

Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary

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Kenya tech battles poachers

Every morning, at the far perimeter of the wildlife reserve capped by Mount Kenya, a khaki-clad ranger meticulously sweeps the earth of animal footprints, covering their tracks from any poachers. It’s an antiquated approach to outsmarting would-be hunters, but this ranger is not alone. High on a mast nearby, a new camera scans around the clock for intrusions, relaying real-time images to armed guards at park headquarters.

It is among the latest technology deployed to combat poaching at Ol Pejeta, a private conservancy on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau that shelters the only two northern white rhinos left on earth, among other endangered giants.

A handful of surveillance cameras may not seem very sophisticated for a sanctuary which is also home to the largest population of critically endangered black rhinos anywhere in East Africa.

But it’s just the tip of the spear. Last month, Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary dedicated to bringing conservation management into the information age.

Inside a retrofitted shipping container, computer engineers are testing the next generation of animal tracking chips and developing remote sensors that could one day monitor everything from ranger health to river levels. “We are very much in our infancy when it comes to this kind of stuff. It is pretty cutting-edge from a conservation perspective,” Richard Vigne, the chief executive of Ol Pejeta, said.

Among other projects, researchers are working towards a chip small enough to fit in a rhino horn, but capable of the live transmission of the animals’ exact location and core vitals. “No one else in the conservation space in Kenya is testing this… For me, that was very exciting,” said Damian Otieno, a Kenyan IT engineer who left an office job for a career in conservation tech, and now leads the Ol Pejeta initiative.

Tech advocates say advances in data collection and smart applications on game reserves could prove revolutionary and upend decades-old approaches to conservation across the world.

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‘Bank without doors’

Until this year at Ol Pejeta, the only way to know if a poacher was lurking near a wildlife corridor was to spot him yourself or trawl through pictures captured by a motion-triggered camera trap. “If I had a bugbear about the world of conservation, it’s that it tends to be fairly slow on the uptake when it comes to new technologies… that has to change,” said Vigne.

Now, three cameras with artificial intelligence capable of telling man from beast send alerts in real time if disturbances are detected. This is critical for the 250 elite rangers tasked with safeguarding 360 square kilometres (90,000 acres) of bushland grazed by more than 150 rhinos.

The last successful poaching at Ol Pejeta was in October 2017, when a northern black rhino was slaughtered. But the threat remains. Last year, three rhinos were found dead with their horns missing in Meru National Park, on the other side of Mount Kenya.

Rhino horn is highly valued in parts of Asia for its believed medicinal qualities and still fetches higher prices than gold, said Samuel Mutisya, head of conservation at Ol Pejeta. “In principle, we are a bank without doors,” he said.

Most intel on game reserves is gathered on foot by rangers in difficult and dangerous terrain, and the walkie-talkie reigns supreme. Poor network coverage and the huge cost of infrastructure has hamstrung the rollout of even basic telecommunication services in some remote habitats.

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‘Ten steps ahead’

Ol Pejeta, however, is connected to a stable network that requires little power to cover the entire park. Data on everything from security breaches to fence damage, lion sightings and ranger locations are fed into a digital dashboard, accessible at a finger’s touch.

A pair of flashing handcuffs on the screen indicates an arrest. A “poacher contact” alert would trigger the immediate deployment of armed rangers. Other innovations have been tested elsewhere in Africa to combat wildlife crime, but cost remains a major hurdle to widespread uptake.

Drones, thermal-imaging cameras and virtual-radar fences were among technologies trialled to mixed success in several African nations by WWF through a Google-backed programme that ended in 2017.

FLIR Systems, which manufactures night-vision cameras, said in January its technology, already deployed in the Masai Mara, would be expanded to 10 Kenyan parks and game reserves.

Vigne said the challenge for Ol Pejeta’s researchers would be developing solutions that can be replicated cost-effectively, at scale. “It’s all very well having one or two parks in Africa with lots of techs, but if that is really costly to the point that nobody else can do it, then it’s a waste of time,” he said.

Prototypes of small, inexpensive chips with years-long battery life are already being tested to track the conservancy’s 6000-strong herd of Boran cattle. Soon, Ol Pejeta hopes to adapt this to rhino tracking, providing intelligence about where and when to deploy rangers and trimming their security bill. “We want to stay one step ahead of the poachers. Ten steps ahead, even better,” said Otieno.

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Ugandan police confirm the death of 19 people in fuel truck blast

The blast occurred Sunday evening in the Kyambura trading centre, a mountainous area near the Queen Elizabeth National Park

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Ugandan police confirm the death of 19 people in fuel truck blast

Nineteen people died when a fuel truck barrelled into other vehicles in a busy town in western Uganda and exploded, police said Monday.

The blast occurred Sunday evening in the Kyambura trading centre, a mountainous area near the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

“Ten people died instantly when the fuel truck lost control and hit three other vehicles, leading to multiple explosions that also burned 25 small shops,” said regional police spokesman Martial Tumusiime.

“Of the people that were rushed to the hospital, nine of them have also died as a result of wounds,” he added. 

In 2002, 70 people were killed when an oil truck rammed into a bus in Rutoto, less than 50 kilometres from Kyambura.

And in 2013, 33 people died in an explosion after a fuel truck overturned — many having rushed to the scene to siphon fuel.

The accident in Uganda came eight days after a fuel truck exploded in Tanzania. The fireball engulfed a crowd thronging to collect petrol from the wrecked vehicle, leaving 95 dead.

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President pardons 4 jailed opponents in Comoros

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May

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Comoros President Azali Assoumani pardons 4 political opponents

Comoros President Azali Assoumani has pardoned four opposition figures jailed for life for an attempted coup in the Indian Ocean islands. In a decree issued Saturday, writer Said Ahmed Said Tourqui, lawyer Bahassane Ahmed Said, Mohamed Ali Abdallah and El-Had Ibrahim Halifa were “pardoned from all of their remaining sentences”.

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May when 17 other jailed opponents were pardoned. The charges were linked to unrest that followed a controversial constitutional referendum to extend the president’s term last year. 

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Bahassane is the younger brother of Jaffar Ahmed Said Hassani, a former vice-president to Azali now living in exile in Tanzania after denouncing the president’s authoritarianism. The pardons follow Azali’s re-election in March, in which he pledged “appeasement measures” to quell accusations of voter fraud.

He was credited with nearly 60 per cent of the ballot, an outcome rejected as fraudulent by the opposition. Comoros has had a volatile political history since independence in 1975, enduring more than 20 attempted coups, four of which were successful.

Pay Attention: Comoros oil boom dream hinges on seismic survey

Azali initially came to power in a coup, then ruled between 1999 and 2006. He was re-elected in 2016 in a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities.

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Tanzania mourns 69 who were killed in fuel tanker blast

“We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter

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A Tanzanian security officer controls the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker is seen

Tanzania was in mourning Sunday, preparing to bury 69 people who perished when a crashed fuel tanker exploded as crowds rushed to syphon off leaking petrol. President John Magufuli declared a period of mourning through Monday following the deadly blast near the town of Morogoro, west of Dar es Salaam.

He will be represented at the funerals by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, an official statement said. “We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter to the national hospital in Dar es Salaam,” Majaliwa told residents in comments broadcast on Tanzanian television. 

The number of injured stood at 66, he said. The burials will start Sunday afternoon, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jenista Mhagama announced during the morning after relatives identified the dead.

“The preparations for the burials have been completed. Individual graves have been dug and the coffins are ready,” Mhagama said, adding that experts would be available to offer psychological counselling to the victims’ relatives. 

DNA tests would be carried out on bodies that were no longer recognisable, Mhagama said, adding that families could take the remains of their loved ones and organise their own burials if they preferred.

Two men carry the remains of a burnt out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded in Tanzania
Two men carry the remains of a burnt-out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Fuel tanker blast kills 10 in Nigeria

In the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa, 39 seriously hurt patients had been taken to hospital in Dar es Salaam while 17 others were being treated in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of the economic capital of Tanzania.

Footage from the scene showed the truck engulfed in flames and huge clouds of black smoke, with charred bodies. The burnt-out remains of motorcycle taxis lie scattered on the ground among scorched trees. A video posted on social media showed dozens of people carrying yellow jerricans around the truck.

No-one wanted to listen

“We arrived at the scene with two neighbours just after the truck was overturned. While some good Samaritans were trying to get the driver and the other two people out of the truck, others were jostling each other, equipped with jerricans, to collect petrol,” teacher January Michael told reporters.

“At the same time, someone was trying to pull the battery out of the vehicle. We warned that the truck could explode at any moment but no one wanted to listen, so we went on our way, but we had barely turned on our heels when we heard the explosion.”

Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker
Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt-out fuel tanker is seen along the side of the road following an explosion on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Tanker accident in Tanzania claims 57 lives

President Magufuli called Saturday for people to stop the dangerous practice of stealing fuel in such a way, a common event in many poor parts of Africa. He issued a statement saying he was “very shocked” by the looting of fuel from damaged vehicles. 

“There are vehicles that carry dangerous fuel oil, as in this case in Morogoro, there are others that carry toxic chemicals or explosives, let’s stop this practice, please,” Magufuli said. Last month, 45 people were killed and more than 100 injured in central Nigeria when a petrol tanker crashed and then exploded as people tried to take the fuel.

Among the deadliest such disasters, 292 people lost their lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in July 2010, and in September 2015 at least 203 people died the South Sudan town of Maridi.

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