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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



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.

Related: Kenya’s apex bank governor says weak Kenyan Shilling not linked to banknote plan

‘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.

Related: Environmental activists protest Ghana’s plan to mine bauxite

‘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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DR Congo urges calm after Ebola outbreak in Goma city

Goma, which has a population of around one million, is the capital of North Kivu province, the epicentre of the recent Ebola zoutbreak



DR Congo urges calm after Ebola outbreak in Goma city
A man receives a vaccine against Ebola from a nurse outside the Afia Himbi Health Center on July 15, 2019 in Goma. (Photo by Pamela TULIZO / AFP)

Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have appealed for calm after a preacher fell ill with Ebola in the eastern city of Goma, the first recorded case of the disease in the region’s urban hub in a nearly year-old epidemic.

Goma, which has a population of around one million, is the capital of North Kivu province, the epicentre of an outbreak that has claimed more than 1,600 lives — the second-highest toll in Ebola’s history.

In a statement, North Kivu Governor Carly Nzanzu Kasivita stressed the new case “not only was detected at an early stage but also was isolated immediately, avoiding any further contamination.”

“I call on the population of the city of Goma and its outskirts to keep calm… (and) co-operate with response teams by observing hygiene and prevention measures and notifying any suspected case of Ebola,” he added.

According to the latest health ministry figures, issued on Saturday, 1,655 people have died from the notorious haemorrhagic virus since August 1 last year, when the disease broke out in North Kivu and spread to neighbouring Ituri.

Nearly 700 people have been cured, and more than 160,000 been vaccinated.

The Goma patient is a Christian pastor who had preached at a church in another town, Butembo, where he would have touched worshippers “including the sick”, the health ministry said Sunday.

His symptoms first surfaced last Tuesday.

The preacher on Friday took a bus from Butembo, one of the town’s hardest hit by the outbreak, and arrived two days later in Goma, where “the results of the laboratory test confirmed that he was positive for Ebola”, the ministry said.

“Given that the patient was quickly identified, as well as all the passengers on the bus from Butembo, the risk of the disease spreading in the city of Goma is low,” it added.\

The pastor was swiftly taken back to Butembo, about 300 kilometres (180 miles) from Goma, the governor added.

The other passengers on the bus, 18 in all, and the driver will be vaccinated against Ebola on Monday, said the ministry,  urging the population of one of Africa’s largest countries to “keep calm”.

The United Nations was convening a “high-level event” in Geneva on Monday to discuss response and preparedness for the Ebola outbreak.

It will be attended by government ministers from DR Congo and Britain, senior officials of the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other UN agencies.

Last month, the WHO said the outbreak did not qualify as an international threat — a category that significantly ramps up global response to a contagious disease.

Its decision took into account cases of infection that surfaced in Uganda among a family that had travelled to eastern DR Congo to see a relative stricken with Ebola.

Ebola spreads when humans touch the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of an infected person, or objects contaminated by such fluids.

Militia attacks –

Health workers in Goma were vaccinated as early as December when the outbreak first hit Butembo further north.

Efforts to roll back Ebola have been hampered by Insecurity in a region plagued by militia groups, who have attacked treatment centres.

Local hostility to health workers trying to trace and isolate people in contact with Ebola patients is another hurdle.

Two more Ebola workers were murdered in their homes in North Kivu after months of threats, the ministry said.

The latest epidemic is the 10th documented outbreak in DR Congo since the disease was identified in 1976 near the Ebola River, which gives it its name.

It is the second deadliest on record globally, after the epidemic that struck West Africa in 2014-2016, killing more than 11,300 people.



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How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy

Hundreds of local traders gather each day at Senga only to find that fish populations are falling in Lake Malawi



How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy
Malawian fishermen wash themselves with the water from the lake on the shore of the Lake Malawi at the Senga village in Senga, Malawi. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

On the shores of Lake Malawi, a crowd eagerly awaits the arrival of a white and yellow cedar wood boat carrying its haul.

The crew of six deliver a single net of chambo, sardine and tiny usipa fish from the boat, just one of 72 vessels that land their catch every day on the beach at Senga Bay.

But overfishing and climate change have taken their toll.

Hundreds of local traders gather each morning and afternoon at Senga only to find that fish populations are falling in Lake Malawi, Africa’s third-largest body of freshwater.

READ: Sierra Leone tackles overfishing but gets small fry

“We were hoping to catch a half-boat full or maybe a quarter-boat… but I’m afraid the fish are dwindling in numbers,” port manager Alfred Banda told reporters staring wearily at the small catch as it was dragged onto the sand.

“Before, we used to catch a full boat but now we are struggling,” he said, adding that a full boat would earn a team of between six and 12 fishermen about $300.

Bordering three countries — Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique — Lake Malawi stretches across more than 29,000 square kilometres (11,200 square miles) with over 1,000 species of fish.

The 14,000 people living at Senga Bay depend on the lake for food and for their livelihood.

“Seven years ago there was lots more fish than today. In 2019, it is different. There’s no fish in the water,” trader Katrina Male, a 40-year-old mother of six, told reporters as she stalked the nets of newly brought in fish seeking the best deal.

“The fish nowadays are more expensive, because they are becoming scarce,” Male said. “Some children have stopped going to school because their parents can’t find the money.”

‘No alternative to fishing’ –

For both locals and climate experts, declining fish numbers reflect a combination of environmental change and overfishing that augurs ill for the future.

The World Bank ranks Malawi among the top 10 at-risk countries in Africa to climate change, with cyclones and floods among the major threats.

How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy
Malawian fishermen fix their fishing nets as fishing boats are seen on the shore of the Lake Malawi at the Senga village in Senga, Malawi. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Senga community leader, John White Said says increasing gale-force winds and torrential rains have made it harder for fishermen on the lake.

READ: Sierra Leone bans industrial fishing for a month

“Our men can’t catch fish because of wind which is much stronger than before,” he said, adding that the rains are increasingly unpredictable on the lake.

“The rain before would not destroy houses and nature but now it comes with full power, destroying everything and that affects the water as well.”

According to USAID, the number of rainfalls incidents in the country is likely to decrease — but each rainfall will be more intense, leading to droughts and floods.

The threat was highlighted in March when Malawi was hit by torrential rains from Cyclone Idai, killing 59 people. The storm also cut a swathe through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, leaving nearly 1,000 dead.

On top of the environmental impact, the number of fishermen in Senga had doubled in the last 10 years due to the lack of other jobs, Said said. 

“There is no alternative to fishing.”

One of the few to benefit is 38-year-old boat owner Salim Jackson, who rents out his two vessels.

“I got into fishing 13 years ago because I had no other option, I never went to school. But it has brought me good money,” he said.

‘Unsustainable fishing practices’ –

By sunset, the balls of fishing net lay stretched out on the beach and both buyers and fishermen negotiate prices.

Traders take their purchases in buckets to makeshift reed tables to be dried, smoked, fried or boiled in preparation for the market.

“Declining fish catches are mainly due to unsustainable fishing practices,” said Sosten Chiotha, a Malawian environmental science professor who works for the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) action group.

“Overfishing is a challenge in Lake Malawi (but) there are efforts on co-management and closed seasons to ensure that the fishery recovers.”

How climate change is draining Lake Malawi and local fishing economy
Malawian fishermen work through their catch on their return ashore on the banks of the Lake Malawi at the Senga village in Senga, Malawi. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Chiotha added that climate change was hitting Malawi with “increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in the major ecosystems including lakes.”

READ: Tunisia fishermen are the lifesavers of the Mediterranean

That leaves Malawi’s agriculture-based economy sharply vulnerable to climatic events and entrenched poverty heightens pressure on the environment.

Wearing a black silk thawb robe and white kufi cap, Said stands tall on Senga beach, surveying the scene around him.

“I’m worried,” he said. “In Malawi, most people depend on fishing financially and as a cheap food source.

“The men have to cast their nets further and further away from the beach.”



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Al-Shabaab attack claims 12 lives in Mogadishu

A suicide bomber rammed a vehicle loaded with explosives into the Medina hotel in the port town of Kismayo



Twenty-six people were killed and 56 injured in a 12-hour attack by Al-Shabaab jihadists on a popular hotel that ended early Saturday in the southern Somali port city of Kismayo. 

A suicide bomber rammed a vehicle loaded with explosives into the Medina hotel on Friday before several heavily armed gunmen forced their way inside, shooting as they went, authorities said.

It was the largest coordinated attack by the Shabaab in Kismayo since 2012 when it lost control of the city.

Three Kenyans, three Tanzanians, two Americans, one Briton and one Canadian were among the dead, president Ahmed Mohamed Islam of the semi-autonomous Jubaland region told a news conference.

The hotel was packed with politicians and prominent businessmen as meetings were underway for upcoming presidential elections in Jubaland, due in August. 

One of the candidates in the election died in the siege, local authorities said.

‘Martyrdom attack’

“The whole building is in ruins, there are dead bodies and wounded who have been recovered from inside. The security forces have cordoned off the whole area,” said witness Muna Abdirahman.

Another witness Hussein Muktar said: “The blast was very big.”

“The security forces are in control now and the last terrorist was shot and killed”, security official Mohamed Abdiweli said.

“There are dead bodies and wounded people strewn inside the hotel,” Abdiweli added. 

He said authorities believed four gunmen, who one witness described as wearing Somali police uniforms, were involved in the attack.

Halayeh’s death sparked an outpouring of grief on social media. 

She was an ardent campaigner for Somali unity and peace and had started an online TV show named Integration. 

In a recent podcast, Nalayeh said her television programme about the Somali diaspora gave the community a voice.

“Social media has changed the game for how people learn about culture. So, if we don’t become the creators of our own content, we are going to be at the mercy of other people telling the stories of Africa,” she had said.

A local journalist, Mohamed Omar Sahal, also died in the siege, the Somali journalists’ union SJS said, adding that these were the first journalist deaths in the country this year.

Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda-linked group, claimed responsibility for the siege describing it as “a martyrdom attack”.

‘Criminal, murderous, destructive’

The African Union’s Special Representative in Somalia, Francisco Madeira, said the attack was “meant to derail progress in Somalia as the country rebuilds and consolidates the gains made on peace and security. 

“The attackers are a group of people with a criminal, murderous and destructive agenda. They cannot claim to be fighting to bring good governance to the country,” he said.

The attack is the latest in a long line of bombing and assaults claimed by Shabaab, which has fought for more than a decade to topple the Somali government.

The militant group emerged from Islamic Courts that once controlled central and southern Somalia and are variously estimated to number between 5,000 and 9,000 men.

In 2010, the Shabaab declared their allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

In 2011, they fled positions they once held in the capital Mogadishu, and have since lost many strongholds.



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