And it’s an armed war – between poachers and rangers. A war between a $70 Billion dollar industry driven by the Asian demand for animal parts and a small group of bootstrapped wildlife enthusiasts. One can only imagine what Africa would look like if humans would never have initiated this senseless hunt for ivory and horn – the same material our nails are made of. Would there still be 26 Million elephants strolling around on the continent, as they did in earlier centuries, where now only 350.000 persist? Would there still be 500.000 rhinos, instead of the 20.000 that are left today? It’s a sad story, but fortunately it also challenges people to think of ways to turn the downhill slope around…
In this article, we’ll take you through our story to help solve one of the world’s most pressing global challenges. What started as an idea became a plan and that plan got us into some wild adventures.
Fast forward to Kafue National Park. We just landed in one of the largest national parks of Africa – once a rhino paradise, now home to exactly 0 of them. We meet wildlife ranger Paul who shows us something new they confiscated from a poacher. In his hands he holds a gun of a type we have never seen before. It's bright green, the barrel seems a little rounded and the trigger looks as if it once was part of a Coca Cola can.
Turns out it’s a self-made shotgun. This is how far poachers go today. In the lack of money to buy real firearms, they have figured out how to forge their own weapons to go out into the bush and shoot at wildlife.
The moment we have been looking for arrives when we arrive at Lusaka Airport. We are welcomed by our friend Vincent Kouwenhoven in his ecological Ila Safari Lodge.
In the next days we meet a number of interesting people that are working hard to protect the wildlife from poaching and we got a lot of surprising facts – some known to us, some completely new. Here’s a collection of them:
Inspired by hard-working wildlife enthusiasts yet saddened by a ‘David v.s Goliath’ feeling we decided to get some sleep and creep into our tents.
The next morning we quickly get some breakfast and then start to getting our sensors up-and-running.
The plan for today is to turn our 2 prototype sensors on in a testing environment, install the gateway and make the sensors send signals to the gateway.
An hour later, everything is running!
The rest of the afternoon is themed by meetings with conservation organizations where we demonstrate our sensors and talk more about the challenges in conservation. Each of these meetings is interesting in its own way, always making us realise how much technology can bring in these areas.
By the end of the day we still have time to do some range/distance testing to measure how far a sensor can be apart from the gateway while still getting messages across. This is when we meet Sam. Sam can climb trees quicker than we can run up your stairs. He won’t be bored today since both the sensors and the gateway need to be installed on high altitudes (>10m) to get a proper range.
With the gateway being installed 15m high up, we jump in a 4×4 with Sam and driver Jack. To test the range continuously, we make our sensors send test messages every 30 seconds. However, African Mother Nature doesn’t feel like it as much as we do. A massive storm begins to hit, making treetops quite an uneasy place to be in– even for climbing legend Sam. After the rain stops Tim figures that he could mimic a tree by holding the sensor high up in the air and see if messages come across to the gateway. It looked pretty funny, but it worked! We got a (disappointing) range of about 5km.
The next morning hippos and the coffee machine wake and fire us up. Today we want to reinstall the gateway to a higher altitude and deploy the sensors in actual trees to see if we can track human activity in its most realistic setting. Sam has already gotten the gateway out of the tree at the lodge and half an hour later he is in the 30m high tower at a nearby ranger post. (We succeed and persuade him to wear a safety harness.)
A LoRa gateway at an altitude of 30m should dramatically increase the range of our sensors, especially since we found out yesterday that the area is not at all flat: hills go 20m up and 20m down consistently, deterring signal after each one of them. We estimate a potential range of some 20km now and optimistically look for trees to install the sensors in. We bring a 10m pole this time and attach it to the sensor, so we can assess our range while driving.
As we drive about 10km away from the gateway, we decide to deploy a sensor in a nearby tree. As we stumble through the bush looking for a good tree, we find a perfect candidate: it’s a 15m high Marula tree. Marula fruits are the type of food that elephants wouldn’t mind being woken up for (and the ones that caused the drunk elephant myth). And indeed, there are elephant traces all around. Having elephants as your sensor guards is a pretty good advantage we thought, so we decide to quickly install a sensor in the tree while we look out for incoming elephants. 30 (nervous) minutes and 120 tie wraps later and we’re heading back to the car. We quickly connect to the gateway and see all messages from the sensor coming in. It’s all working!
Installing the second sensor proves to be a little bit more challenging. We drive off to the other side of the gateway where there is no cellphone coverage, meaning that we can’t check in real-time whether messages from the sensor to the gateway arrive or not. While driving off, planning to simply stand still at 5, 15 and 20km range for a few minutes for messages to be transmitted (and check the status of their arrival later) a group of lions block the road. They are clearly not intimidated by the our truck. Our driver reminds us that being in the truck provides no guaranteed safety: the popular story claiming that animals perceive a car full of human beings as one large animal is a myth.
After a very hilly 30min return trip we’re disappointed to see that none of the messages have arrived. An essential takeaway: hills have a giant effect on connectivity range of LoRa.
The driver knows of a place with fewer hills in between and we decide to quickly go there and find a tree to attach the second sensor to now it’s still light. We move through the paths that elephants and lions have created in the high grass – this place is an ‘animal highway’. Standing in front of the tree and figuring out the best climbing route, we notice the discomfort of Sam and our driver and decide to come back tomorrow. Sunset is hunting time for many predators and we don’t feel like falling prey to the creatures we aim to protect. And so we return to the Lodge, a bit disappointed, but we are welcomed with a campfire and a lovely starry night.
The sun rises for the third time on this trip. Leonard moves back to Lusaka for a tech assessment elsewhere while Tim and me remain for a final testing day. Before anything, we race to the tree we were standing at yesterday and hang in the second sensor there. Checking the gateway over The Things Network, we see messages coming in at the gateway directly. Off we go!
Next up is a check-up on the first sensor. It doesn’t seem to work reliably and we might be able to solve it with the some new configurations. When we jump out of the car and stride towards the Marula tree, we see what we didn’t want to expect: a giant male elephant eating Marula fruits under "our tree"…
We can connect to the sensor over WiFi with our laptops, but we never really tested the range. Lead by our guide Bob, we come closer to the tree, step by step, hoping for a ‘Connected’-notification.
We can almost hear the elephant chewing when he suddenly seems to notice us from a 60m distance. We’re in luck. Within seconds he runs away the opposite direction. Bob performs a little search around, since he may return with the same speed as he fled away (and with his friends), but finds no trace. Staying here for too long might involve a messy elephant brawl, so we’ve got to do everything we want to do in a few minutes.
Our happiness to be back in a safe car is amplified when we notice that the sensor is getting messages over to the gateway. It worked! A few hours before the end of the pilot test, we have managed to get everything operationally working!
The next day we meet Leonard again in Lusaka, and three insane days of testing a completely new type of sensor with inspiring wildlife conservation partners are over.
We are very satisfied with the results of this trip. We installed and tested our devices in the wild and proved that it works.
More importantly we got to know all the organisations that are working in conservation and discussed the technology we developed and how that could be used.
Back at home we take all learnings from the field and modify the technology.
This story isn't over yet. It starts here...