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Wild-tech rigs up Malawi’s conservation capacity

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By Charles Mpaka

From drones to camera trapping to GPS to radio collaring, Malawi’s conservation work is seriously getting digital.

And, according to experts, cracking down on wildlife crimes in Malawi is becoming more efficient, inspiring hope of reduced poaching and also restoration of wildlife in Malawi’s animal parks.

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So impressed is the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DPNW) with the impact of the technological investments made thus far that it is now eyeing to have all Malawi’s protected areas rigged with wild-tech.

“We have seen how useful technology is in management of wildlife. “Our vision therefore is to have all protected areas run on high technology as this is the only way we can deal with this wildlife crime scourge, the latter being highly-resourced and highly organised,” Brighton Kumchedwa, DPNW Director, told The Sunday Times.

In a typical tech-driven crime-busting case, two poachers from Ntaja in Machinga district are currently serving an 18-year jail term, thanks to a chip that betrayed them.

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In 2017, they invaded Liwonde National Park where they killed a rhino whose horn was inserted with a chip with a Very High Frequency (VHF) transmitter.

One of the poachers hid the horn in his house, unaware that the chip was emitting signals to the office.

This eventually led to the tracing of the two poachers and their subsequent arrest.

Over the past 10 years, Malawi has invested in wild-techs that are aiding conservation work through data collection, poacher detection and prevention and tracking animal movement and population.

According to DNPW, the wild-techs Malawi is using today include Geographic Position System (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (Smart), in addition to drones and radio collaring.

Kumchedwa said these innovations have “contributed positively” to Malawi’s fight against poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

The department is however being challenged by low funding in adopting conservation technology at a considerable rate.

Other Recurrent Transaction (ORT). Of this, K142 million is meant for field allowances for rangers. “In other words, the DNPW has about K100 million to manage its eight protected areas while it is estimated that it takes around US$1 million [about K790 million] to manage one protected area,” he said.

Kumchedwa said hardly is the department one of the government’s priorities when it comes to ORT, leaving it heavily dependent on donors.

Olivia Sievert, Head of Research at Lilongwe Wildlife monitoring of ecologically important or threatened species in Malawi, said adoption of wild-tech has “really sped up” in Malawi in recent years.

Sievert allayed fears that going wild-tech would mean less need for human resource.

“In conservation, technology is never going to replace the need for boots on the ground or replace how many people are needed on the ground.

“What technology in conservation is used for, especially from an antipoaching aspect with rangers, is the ability to assist people in their jobs and add a level of intelligence for their operations,” she said.

Thermo imaging, for example, can help rangers plan patrols based on what they are finding in real time versus planning patrols on where you had found the most snares, she explained.

“When you are using collars to help understand human wildlife conflict, you are using those collars to get a better understanding of where the elephants might go out. That way you can send rangers to that area to preemptively scare them to go back inside the park, versus waiting to be out and get a call from communities.

“That is the idea of technology, to sustain conservation managers, rangers, researchers and everything else. It is assisting them with their jobs and understanding the systems better in order to be more effective in the long term,” she told The Sunday Times.

LWT has been using devices such as radio transmitters and satellite tracking units to study animal populations, movement patterns and behaviours.

This information helps in deciding the carrying capacity of a given protected area and prevention of human-wildlife conflict, among others benefits.

According to LWT, illegal wildlife trade is one of the world’s largest transnational organised crimes. In a 2015 report by the organisation and other partners, Malawi was named as major trafficking hub for ivory and other illegal wildlife commodities from neighbouring countries feeding the global network.

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