Björn Persson has exhibited his extraordinary wildlife photographs in art galleries across Europe, Asia and North America and has published several books. It was clearly commercially successful. The passion for his subjects led him to embark on the high-tech fight against wildlife trafficking.
‘Beauty will save the world’ isn’t just the title of the Swede’s 2020 photography book, it’s also the underlying principle of his latest venture.
Wildlife trafficking is an estimated $20 billion-a-year criminal industry, with elephant tusks and rhino horns fetching up to $60,000 per kilogram on the Asian medicinal black market. Traditional photography depicting the horrors of poaching leans towards the macabre – something Persson avoids.
“I never try in my images to show horror,” he explained. “If you try to scare people, it will have the opposite effect. So I started depicting the beauty of nature rather than scaring people into action.
It is this beauty as well as her compassion for wildlife that caught the attention of two scientists from Linköping University during Persson’s 2020 exhibition at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Fredrik Gustafsson and Per-Olof Hansson acknowledged that Persson’s beliefs mirrored those of Smart Savannahs, an NGO they founded in 2013 to fight wildlife traffickers. Late last year, Persson became president of the group and is now talking about the new technologies they are using in battle.
“It’s all based on state-of-the-art sensor technology,” Persson said. “You could say that the heart of the technology is a new app that has been developed, an app that rangers use, not just to track animals, but to share information where they are.”
Before new technology, Persson says, rangers relied on simple walkie-talkies to communicate.
“If there is danger, they can easily reach that animal and it allows them to communicate better with each other. Smart camera traps are connected to this application, thermal cameras that can detect if it is a human who shouldn’t be there or an animal moving in the park. It reads the structure of the body and gives an alert” to smartphones.
Smart Savannahs has provided mobile phones to rangers and has also partnered with Airtel, Kenya’s leading mobile provider, to build towers throughout Tsavo West National Park, one of Kenya’s largest. Rangers can now monitor wildlife remotely.
The rhinos have been fitted with GPS devices while AI cameras have been installed throughout Tsavo West Park, along with hidden ground sensors that alert rangers to movement. If all else fails, hidden microphones can detect the direction of the shots, facilitating a quick response. Yet it is an ever-evolving process.
“There are so many problems setting up these things,” Persson said. “The animals, the weather, the cameras themselves; animals approach them and sometimes start chewing them.
“The beauty is that since it’s funded by the (Swedish) state, we don’t charge the parks anything for any of this. Basically, they get everything for free: software and hardware. That’s a very positive thing. If we had to ask the different parks to pay for this technology, it would be very difficult.
Technology is changing all the time. Poachers mainly target black rhinos and elephants, but when some rhinos were fitted with anklets containing GPS chips, the huge creatures tried to hunt them. In response, the Linkoping team developed a GPS chip that can be drilled into a horn.
With a thriving career in wildlife photography, Persson can’t be in Kenya all the time. Either way, Smart Savannahs has to rely on “boots in the field” and he’s teamed up with Donald Bunge, an 18-year veteran of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.
Bunge’s experience proves essential in navigating the political landscape as well as the physical landscape. The paperwork has to go through different levels of government to deploy the technology to other national parks. It also runs an educational component teaching locals about wildlife conservation.
For years, he and his family have lived on reserve land, so he knows how dangerous combat can be. Bunge tells the story of being woken up at 2:31 a.m. one night – he remembers the exact time – as his wife heard gunshots. As director of the reserve, he was responsible for security.
“The poachers arrive with very powerful weapons, M16s, AK-47s. We have basic non-automatic rifles,” he said. “It’s a big difference in firepower. When that happens, you just have to retreat. The first thing is to stay safe.
“My first response was to step out onto the balcony and I fired two shots with my .275 rifle in the air just to let them know we have security and people who can counter it. waited for reinforcements from the police patrol base.
With his security team, he finally advanced towards the poachers who were shooting in their direction as a warning.
“When I fired the shells, they fired back at me,” he recalls. “Of course, in the dark, you will see the shiny balls going past you. So you have to have the courage to go in that direction.
The poachers escaped, but not before killing a rhino and leaving the carcass discovered by Bunge the next morning.
It was about 10 years ago. If Savannahs Smart technology had been available at the time, he thinks the result would have been very different. Bunge knows he was lucky though. Last November, two off-duty ranger commanders were ambushed and shot dead. The murderers fled. He believes it was a warning to others.
“Raising rhinos in Kenya is a very risky business,” he said. “You just need to be very well equipped. You have to be ahead of everything. You have to be technologically ready to counter this thing before you get hit.
“Smart Savannahs has been testing this technology for seven years and it is currently in use around Tsavo West National Park in the Rhino Sanctuary. Of course, there has been no poaching in the area for five years. It’s a combination of both technology and the commitment of the rangers and the Kenya Wildlife Service in general.
It is obvious to all involved that the poachers carry both weapons and sophisticated technology. They are willing to risk a lot for the financial rewards. According to Nick Ahlers, director of the Africa program of Traffic, an organization that fights global trafficking, many of the same gangs involved in wildlife trafficking are also the perpetrators of other major crimes.
“There are often overlaps between individuals involved in the wildlife trade, as an opportunistic crime, as well as other ‘high value, low risk trades’ such as drugs and human trafficking, etc.”, he said. “So we see that connection, definitely.”
Clearly, Smart Savannahs is having an impact with the Kenya Wildlife Service, as the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo National Park has seen the rhino population rebound significantly thanks to this protection. There are so many rhinos now, Persson said, that they are moving the animals to nearby parks.
“The black rhino has been the most endangered species, and then you have elephants, which are constantly being killed on a daily basis,” Persson said. “Ultimately, the goal and the vision is to spread the technology to all parks in Kenya and to all endangered species.”
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