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How Mobile Technology is Changing Conservation

Cyber Tracker technology used by rangers

From mobile phones to CyberTrackers, technology is transforming Africa and how we do conservation.

Almost as ubiquitous as the acacia tree on the savanna is the mobile phone in Africa. That tidy assemblage of circuit board and battery in a handheld box has increasingly become an indispensable part of daily life for Kenyans and Ugandans as much as for, say, Americans and Europeans.

Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market in the world, with subscriptions expected to hit 1 billion by 2015.

The surprising thing, however, is not necessarily Africa’s fast and furious adoption of the mobile phone but its adaptation of the phone. Necessity breeds innovation, and in many countries in Africa, where the need for basic services—such as electricity, communications, or banking—can be great, innovators are redefining the functions a mobile phone can perform.

“People in rural areas have little to no access to today’s technologies, yet they are the ones who stand to gain the most from it,” says James Mithamo, AWF’s director of information technology and infrastructure. “Technology makes it possible to bypass poor infrastructure and connect remote areas directly with the tools and services that enrich our lives.”

Take banking, for example. In 2005, 20 million South Africans owned mobile phones, while only 13.5 million had bank accounts. For the same year in Uganda, 100 automatic teller machines served a country of 27 million people. In Kenya, instead of waiting for the traditional banking infrastructure to catch up, mobile phone operator Safaricom developed a mobile money transfer and microfinance service called M-Pesa. Suddenly Kenyans could send and receive money with a simple text message, whether they were sitting in their Nairobi apartment or their far-flung manyatta. (Other telecom providers in Africa have come out with their own versions of M-Pesa.)

Mobile technology and conservation

Mobile money transfer services have even been adopted by conservation groups. AWF’s partner, Honeyguide Foundation, leads anti-poaching operations in and around Manyara Ranch Conservancy in the Maasai Steppe landscape. Honeyguide’s rangers often rely on tip-offs from informants to catch poachers with informants paid for their intel through M-Pesa.

“Payment by mobile phone offers a transparent, direct, and immediate way to reward them for their good intel,” says Damian Bell, Honeyguide’s executive director.

When there are no informers about, thought, it can be difficult for wildlife authorities to know where to focus their limited staff and resources. At the Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve in AWF’s Congo landscape, AWF trained rangers and protected area managers to use rugged handheld computers called CyberTrackers to collect and analyze ecological information. By tapping a few buttons, rangers can quickly record the location and description of whatever they are seeing on their CyberTracker.

“It’s difficult for managers to do their job when the information they get from the field is days old and not very reliable,” says AWF Biologist Alain Lushimba, who has trained rangers and ecologists at protected sites in West and Central Africa. “This changes that.”

 


kgarrigan
About the Author

Kathleen joined AWF in 2009 was AWF's Media Relations Manager. Many moons ago she worked at a wildlife sanctuary near the Kruger National Park in South Africa where she slept with monkeys, fought bush fires, led snare patrols, guided camping trips in the Kruger and spent untold hours removing cattle fencing. She has traveled throughout Southern and East Africa and looks forward to the day when she can take her own little (human) primate to visit the mother continent.

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AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.