In March 2017, poachers killed and cut off the horn of a rhino at a zoo outside of Paris. The butchering of Vince, a 4-year-old male white rhino, was a barbaric act that highlighted the uphill fight against international criminal syndicates that profit from the sale of animal parts on the black market. The activities of these illicit networks threaten biodiversity, fuel insecurity, and depress local economies that depend on eco-tourism. Rhino poaching is just a small part of the illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated to rack in $19 billion per year. In this regard, this black market trade poses, not only an environmental risk, but an acute challenge to development and security.
Since 2013, when a team from Stimson visited Tsavo West National Park in Kenya, we have worked to draw attention to poaching and wildlife trafficking ― both their security and economic consequences ― and to identify innovative solutions to combat wildlife crime. Tsavo West is home to the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary. Decades ago, thousands of rhinos lived there. But, when Stimson’s team visited, that number had dropped to only 60.
At the time, Stimson’s work in East Africa focused on border security, specifically as it relates to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Hearing of our work on critical border infrastructure, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) commander invited us to Ngulia, eager to illuminate the uneven fight that he and his rangers were waging against poachers. His request highlighted the common disjuncture between global security priorities — like the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — and more immediate local security challenges that compete for government attention.
Today, park rangers in Ngulia have more situational awareness to detect, deter, and defeat poachers because of the C3 system Stimson developed.
At Tsvao, the handful of rangers at Ngulia were overmatched and outgunned, fighting a losing battle against increasingly violent poachers who had successfully subverted any security that Ngulia implemented. In many cases, the security assistance provided to the park had high maintenance costs and was mismatched to the capacity of the rangers on the ground. Although well-meaning, sophisticated drones provided by big donors to governments across sub-Saharan Africa proved largely unsustainable and a poor match for local challenges — not to mention being a far too costly solution. A new approach was needed to cheaply and sustainably thwart the illicit trade of rhino horn ― a commodity more valuable on the black market than gold.
This is where Stimson came into play ― our team recognized that many of the same instruments that were marshalled to secure borders against illicit commodities could also be applied here — and we sought to bring some of those lessons learned to Ngulia. Fast-forward to January 2014, the team returned to conduct a feasibility study. This time, technical experts from Linkoping University in Sweden joined to identify exactly what was needed. The feasibility study was the foundation of what would become a public-private partnership that would fundamentally change the battle against poachers.
The effort to protect Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary led Stimson’s team across continents. We spoke with governments and businesses ― academics and advocates. We brought together a network of partners, including Kenya-based iHub and Airtel, a global telecommunications corporation, each bringing their own expertise to the project. They gave their time and talent to develop a durable, cost-effective solution. We listened to the needs of the park rangers on the ground ― and created a public-private partnership based upon a mobile app and command, control, and communications (C3) system.
Today, park rangers in Ngulia have more situational awareness to detect, deter, and defeat poachers because of the C3 system Stimson developed. As one commander in the field noted of the system, “We are now able to see the area of coverage and make informed decisions on where rangers need to improve in their patrol.” The low-cost, low-tech solution is both affordable and scalable to other pressing border insecurity challenges across the Global South — from preventing the illicit trade in weapons and controlling the drug trade, to preventing illegal border incursions by terrorists, and disrupting global proliferation supply chains.
Stimson’s work at Ngulia is rooted in a simple but impactful notion: that groups can accomplish more by working together than they can working independently. At their very best, coalitions with diverse partners can tackle big challenges — whether defined as security, development, or environmental.
In a world facing daunting transnational threats, more creative partnerships, like the ones formed at Ngulia, are needed to engineer new solutions — and Stimson’s team will remain on the frontlines creating them.