One evening last June, wildlife rangers heard a burst of gunfire in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They followed the sound to a group of poachers attacking elephants for their ivory. When confronted, the poachers opened fire with an arsenal that included PKMs, AKs, G3s, and FNs. Outgunned, the rangers beat a hasty retreat.
The details may vary, but this basic scene takes place in elephant landscapes all across Africa and Asia today. Poachers in the illegal wildlife trade are heavily armed, technologically advanced, and increasingly prepared to put themselves at even greater risk as the potential financial rewards climb higher.
These developments have put conservationists on the front lines of an ever more challenging, dangerous, and resource-intensive battle.
A spike in demand has sent ivory prices skyrocketing, with the result that sophisticated criminal syndicates and other groups have entered the ivory market to finance their illegal activities. The poachers in the DRC, it was later learned, were members of Joseph Kony's infamous guerrillas, the Lord's Resistance Army.
Combating these malefactors requires a well-armed ranger force with a level of management and tactical training not often found in protected areas across the developing world. Although national parks and similar conservation areas face some of the gravest threats to wildlife, their local guards are frequently understaffed, poorly equipped, and without access to basic information on where poaching happens and when. This knowledge is pivotal for wildlife managers. To quickly access such information, conservation groups are turning to technological solutions to better assist local security forces.
One result is the free, open-source Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, or SMART—an innovative software application that was recently designed to help rangers curb the illegal trade in wildlife.
At its core, SMART helps rangers document where patrols go, what they see, and how they respond. Whether collected by direct observation or GPS, data is fed into a central system back at park headquarters. There it is converted into visual information in near real-time to help managers understand where the greatest threats are and how best to deploy patrols. This enables them to allocate scarce resources more effectively while also feeding the results back to the rangers themselves. Its success derives from a bottom-up approach, drawing directly on the needs identified by staff working in the field.
Rangers need all the motivation they can get given the daily challenges they face. To address this, SMART is being used to develop performance-based incentives and improve coordination between rangers and park managers. Furthermore, SMART was designed with these front-line agents in mind: It requires little training or IT expertise and was designed to be operated at the ground level where the need is greatest.
The SMART technology was developed through an alliance that includes Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), the North Carolina Zoo (NCZ), and CITES-MIKE (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants). We came together to help close the information gap that exists between wildlife protectors and poachers.
The partnership is a rare example of collaboration within the conservation community on a global scale to address a core conservation need. A handful of individuals representing each of the member groups contributed their time and technical expertise.
The urgency for new and concerted approaches could not be greater. According to a study WCS recently published with 60 other scientists in PLoS ONE, Central Africa lost a shocking 62 percent of its forest elephants between 2002 and 2011, the majority of which were killed for their ivory. The study—the largest ever conducted in the central African forests—shows that almost one-third of their habitat previously considered safe is now almost empty of elephants.
The surge in elephant poaching over the past decade has been driven by a growing demand for ivory in China and other parts of Asia. There, economic forces have enabled an increasingly wealthy consumer market to purchase painstakingly crafted pieces, which are valued as symbols of prestige and status.
WCS is now working with government partners to develop SMART pilot sites on a global scale—including Belize, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Gabon, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Thailand. While we're not an enforcement agency, we do provide key technical assistance to government partners in implementing SMART and in using the results effectively, contributing to overall improvements in the management, coordination, and evaluation of patrols.
When used as part of a bigger package of law enforcement support for operations, training, and equipment, SMART gives protected area managers a more complete picture of the poaching pressures they face and the means to address them: providing wildlife rangers with a leg up in their fight against trafficking. By tracking how resources are used, how many arrests are made, and what impact this has on poaching, the system also holds governments accountable.
The stakes have never been higher. In Gabon, for example, where I am currently based, there is considerable high-level political support for conservation, and the government has mobilized additional armed resources to protect its elephants.
Yet despite such commitment poaching has continued, with the local price of ivory increasing tenfold over the past few years. Gabon has placed a high level of importance on evaluating how effectively its wildlife protection efforts are being deployed, and it benefits from regular information provided through WCS and partners using SMART technology.
Ultimately, the real test for SMART will be the extent to which it is adopted by front-line conservation agencies across the globe. It was designed to be wide-ranging in application and scalable to a broad range of contexts, with local language support and a suite of practical training materials. While its vision may be grand, its concept remains a simple one.
SMART is not the only solution in addressing the ongoing elephant slaughter within protected areas: that will require a concerted effort at multiple levels of government. Rather, SMART provides a park manager with information that, if used wisely, can be a very powerful tool.
Stopping the slaughter on the ground will remain a top priority until success can be achieved in curbing the demand for ivory and other wildlife parts and products. By bringing the latest technological know-how to the fight, SMART may help ensure that fewer shots will be fired.
Emma Stokes is a conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society. Based in Gabon, she serves as an advisor for WCS Africa programs and on global law enforcement monitoring.