Getting SMART

Zinave National Park is using cutting-edge technology to protect its wildlife.

January 16, 2019

9:22 am

Zinave National Park, in south-central Mozambique, was once a flourishing animal haven. The park was -- like so many of the country's wildlife refuges -- devastated by the Mozambique civil war, which raged from 1977-1992, leading to the deaths of about one million Mozambique citizens, and nearly wiping out the country's animal population.

Since 2016, Zinave has been co-managed by the Mozambique government's conservation authority (ANAC, the Portuguese acronym for National Agency for Conservation Areas) and Peace Parks Foundation (PPF). PPF, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela, was established "to facilitate the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) -- or peace parks -- in southern Africa."

There have been many challenges in restoring Zinave as a viable ecosystem -- and eventually a destination that can compete with other parks in Africa for tourism dollars. As part of efforts to achieve this, PPF has embarked on a journey to rewild Zinave -- that is, reintroduce a number of animal species into the park and reestablish an ecosystem in the park's confines. The Moving Giants initiative has played a role in that effort, moving the first 50 of what could be as many as 200 elephants from De Beers Group's Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in South Africa to Zinave.

The park -- which is more than 1,500 square miles in size, and which is bigger than any continental U.S. city (and smaller only than four massive Alaskan cities) -- created a 23-square-mile fenced-in sanctuary within its borders, to launch a manageable home for the park's new inhabitants. Eventually, as the population of these translocated animals grows, the fences will be taken down and the animals will be able to roam the entirety of the park.

To learn more about what challenges Zinave faces, Moving Giants spoke with Trevor Landrey, Peace Parks Foundation’s Operations Manager in Zinave, and Antony Alexander, the Foundation’s Project Manager for Mozambique. They told us about a variety of strategies and initiatives, including the use of SMART (stands for Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) technology -- Zinave is one of the first parks in southern Africa to use the cutting-edge platform.

The Road to Zinave National Park in Mozambique.

MOVING GIANTS: How have the surrounding communities reacted to the idea of rebuilding and rewilding Zinave?

Antony Alexander: Very positively -- not much attention has been paid to the development of economic opportunities in the surrounding area over the past decade. Therefore there was much excitement over the employment of over 150 community members in the initial years of the project, along with the hope and expectation of future investors and tourism development and opportunities entering the region in the coming years. They have also reacted positively to the re-establishment of community engagement forums, through which project developments, community programs and environmental-awareness programs are initiated. As part of this we have taken local school learners on a number of visits to the park, as well as to environmental and tourism seminars in Inhambane. We have also initiated water-system improvements, honey production, and conservation-agriculture projects through these community structures.

MOVING GIANTS: What are the biggest challenges of patrolling a park the size of Zinave, which is larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island?

Trevor Landrey: The greatest challenge is accessibility, since the park had not been traversed from the late 1970s. Most historical access roads over 400 kilometers had to be cleared and opened to gain access into remote parts of the park. Furthermore, it required a very detailed reconnaissance of the entire park, spanning a period of one year to detail the extent of human activity, settlements, and remnant game populations. All of this data contributed to the development of a strategic counter-poaching strategy that could be effectively implemented.

MOVING GIANTS: Given the difficulties of covering certain terrain with traditional vehicles, like cars, are there other methodologies that you have found to be effective to cover the park?

Trevor Landrey: We recognized that bicycles were the only way to provide effective ground coverage. In the absence of a road network, we utilized alternative routes, such as historical subsistence-trade foot routes, and poaching foot and cycle routes.

MOVING GIANTS: Once you had a strategy, did you try to work with the existing ranger staff or did you want to bring in new personnel?

Trevor Landrey: To implement the strategy, we needed to recruit and train 24 new rangers to a high standard of competence, and implement an incentive bonus scheme that would be effective to counter the inherent corruption associated with logging and poaching activities.

"It is logistically challenging to keep field rangers supplied with water and rations in Zinave, especially since water is mostly only available locally seasonally."

Trevor Landrey, Peace Parks Foundation’s Operations Manager at Zinave

MOVING GIANTS: Given how large and isolated the park is, are there challenges in even keeping the rangers fed and hydrated when they are out on patrol?

Trevor Landrey: The park is certainly remote and it is indeed logistically challenging to keep field rangers supplied with water and rations, especially since water is mostly only available locally seasonally. Ironically, during the wet seasons, we mostly cannot access the ranger operating bases by vehicle, which necessitates resupply only on foot and bicycle.

MOVING GIANTS: Is connectivity reliable in south-central Mozambique? Does SMART require a strong wireless signal?

Trevor Landrey: Connectivity and the associated technologies are relatively reliable in terms of satellite transmission and receiving capability. However, it cannot be dependent on cellular-wireless or network signals, since this is very limited and the park is mostly out of network signal. To this end, one of our first investments was the installation of a state-of-the-art digital-radio system that enables radio communication throughout the core section of the Park and which will be supplemented by a satellite-radio system for the more remote western-block area. This system enables real-time tracking of all radio-based operations and is linked into the Head Office Operations Control room. These real-time operations are supported by SMART, which enables better management and recording of patrols.

MOVING GIANTS: How did Zinave become one of the first national parks in Africa to use SMART technology? Can you tell us how Zinave came to learn about SMART, and what SMART actually does?

Trevor Landrey: Zinave implemented SMART in August 2016, and we use it as a database that provides us with reliable and accurate monitoring of patrol-activity statistics, including establishing trends that identify poaching hot spots. Each patrol unit is equipped with a digital radio and a SMART unit, which is used to capture all relevant patrol data and observations. We collect wildlife recordings, which provide data on the effectiveness of the counter-poaching strategy. The GPS data within SMART is used for mapping and recording of field data.

Analysis of SMART data identifies trends, such as in patrolling, poaching and wildlife activity. These enable a better understanding of the conservation area, which leads to better management of decision making. We are also able to effectively pre-plan patrols from our operations room and download the plans to SMART for execution by the field rangers in combination with our high-tech radio-tracking system, which enables us to control and monitor field operations live from the operations control room.

A home just outside of Zinave National Park in Mozambique.

MOVING GIANTS: How have you been able to reach -- and teach -- the local communities about how poaching can negatively impact the whole ecosystem?

Trevor Landrey: One of the most important aspects of the counter-poaching strategy that had to be considered was the fact that the park's boundaries are not physically distinguishable on the ground. In fact, they had been changed from the original historical boundary, which led us to take a “soft approach” with locals, where we found ourselves having to educate the local populations -- including poachers arrested for poaching activities -- about the boundaries.

We also explained our objectives for the rehabilitation of the park and why we needed to control the poaching activity, which in the end would be beneficial to the local communities.

The “soft approach“ actually released the previously imprisoned subsistence poachers with a warning that a second offense would attract a prosecution. To date, after nearly three years of operations, we have only re-arrested one poacher on a second offense, and we have gained the cooperation of community leaders on our efforts.

SMART is a unique example of a global-conservation NGO partnership that includes Frankfurt Zoological Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, North Carolina Zoo, Panthera, Peace Parks Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife Protection Solutions, World Wildlife Fund, & the Zoological Society of London

This feature is a companion piece to Episode 5 of our "Moving Giants" video series, which you can watch below. To see previous episodes in the series, please visit our video hub here.

A tree in Zinave National Park in Mozambique.