BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is, in many ways, the archetypical South African safari experience. Dry, flat lands shimmer in the equatorial heat and spindly acacias rise like stately islands of green above a gently waving sea of yellow grass. Animals laze in the sweltering heat: grey rhinos slouch like parked tanks, ears flapping. Giraffes languidly trot from one tree to the next. Elephants jostle for position at the cracked watering hole. It’s an idyllic, naturalistic landscape, the kind that Dr. Livingston (I presume) must have once trekked in his heyday. But unlike Livingston, park rangers and wardens at Lewa have to deal with far worse than just cranky hippos and tsetse flies.
South Africa is not the unspoiled wilderness it once was. As populations grow and urban centres push sub-urban developments into formerly wild spaces, humans and animals are finding themselves in close contact with each other…and that leads to trouble. Curious animals, drawn by food, wander into farms and suburban developments – and if you think that sounds more charming than alarming, just think about what might happen if an African elephant in heat showed up in your backyard. Worse yet, enterprising, unethical poachers also no longer have to trek for hundreds of miles to reach their targets. What can be done to protect animals and humans from each other? In Lewa, at least, conservationists are increasingly turning to advanced technology to keep a watchful eye on their park, its borders, and its occupants.
Selvam Velmurugan heads Vulcan, a Seattle-based company that specializes in the field of “big data” – the kind of ever-shifting, disparate troves of information that contain useful data about a wide variety of subjects such as, say, an ever-changing stock market, or the numerous vectors of incoming aircraft. In the past, computers have struggled to comprehend these kinds of shifting variables and the correlation between them, but recent advances in technology have allowed computers to gainfully crunch the numbers. In Lewa, conservationists are using this software to keep animals safe. The new software hooks directly into the high-tech border fences designed to keep intruders out and animals in. The system also merges a host of different factors into a single, interactive viewing map that can be accessed in the main headquarters: GPS readings of animals, radio and vehicle trackers to keep connected with anti-poaching teams, camera trap photos, roads to surrounding human settlements, weather forecasts, and more. In some respects, it resembles the high-tech integrated map of Jurassic World brought to life.
In February 2017, Vulcan got its first real workout when two armed intruders entered the conservation area and fatally shot two men. Using Vulcan’s technology, authorities were able to track their entrance and exit points, follow the road back to their settlement, and from there apprehend the two criminals. In addition to this, the range is also working on predicting future weather patterns, allowing them to more accurately care for the animals under their command. Vulcan is trying to make animals safe –in a way that Spock would surely approve of.