This case study in our Conservation Tech Showcase highlights Big Life Foundation, an organization working with conservation technology tools to monitor and protect wildlife in key regions like Kenya and Tanzania.
About Big Life Foundation
Big Life Foundation (Big Life) is dedicated to protecting wildlife and wild lands in East Africa, primarily in Kenya and Tanzania. Partnering with local communities to protect nature for the benefit of all, Big Life envisions a world where conservation supports the people, and people support conservation.
With over 500 Maasai rangers and field staff, 32 permanent outposts, and various vehicles and planes for aerial surveillance, Big Life patrols over 1.6 million acres in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem (GAE) of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania to protect over 2,000 African savanna elephants, Eastern black rhinos, and more than 200 lions.
The GAE, which lies at the center of one of the largest remaining interconnected savanna ecosystems in Africa, is under constant threat from wildlife poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat destruction, making Big Life’s conservation technology adoption even more critical.
What conservation technologies are Big Life deploying in East Africa?
Big Life is deploying a range of conservation technologies to protect wildlife and wild lands in East Africa. In 2019, they adopted EarthRanger and a modernized radio communications system and operations center, which helps them monitor and deploy their network of rangers and assets efficiently, allowing them to respond promptly to incidents.
Big Life is also implementing LoRaWAN (long range wide area network) technology in partnership with Smart Parks. LoRa Devices are very small and use very low amounts of power, and are therefore able to run on batteries and solar power for many years. This makes the devices ideal for monitoring a network of things across remote and difficult-to-access areas.
Applicable devices for monitoring within the Greater Amboseli ecosystem include GPS trackers, alarm buttons, as well as numerous sensors such as crop-protection fence sensors, fuel sensors for community water borehole pumps, soil condition sensors, biomass sensors, and more. With human-wildlife conflict now surpassing trophy poaching as a cause of elephant death, the use of conservation technology is crucial to addressing the challenges, and Big Life is leading the way in this area.
How has technology helped Big Life in conservation efforts?
Big Life has made impressive progress in conservation by using technology, growing their operations by over 100 rangers and field staff in the past four years (from 350 to 500+). With new technology systems, they have not had an elephant poached within their area of operations since 2018. This is a significant achievement considering that tens of thousands of elephants are still estimated to be killed by poachers annually across Africa. Other wildlife species in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem, including endangered giraffes and zebras, have also rebounded, with their populations increasing over the past ten years.
Technology played a critical role in these successes. While on patrol, rangers record data on arrests, fence breaks, carcasses, human-wildlife conflict incidents, snares recovered and destroyed, poaching incidents, and more using a smartphone-based mobile data collection application, as well as immediate incident reporting directly to Big Life’s Operations Command Centre via the unit’s digital radio. This data feeds in near-real time to EarthRanger and to the monitoring software platform called SMART. Rangers track their daily patrols via GPS or smartphone application, as well as automatically through their digital radio, which is also loaded into the database and SMART for monitoring and evaluation purposes.
The daily data reported by rangers is collated monthly, quarterly, and annually for general organizational reporting. This helps measure program success and progress against previous years, with indicators such as crop-raiding incidents, crop damage, prevention of crop-raiding and retaliatory hunting, confiscated ivory and weapons, and wildlife injuries and deaths. The information guides program implementation for optimal wildlife and habitat protection.
Big Life's use of technology in conservation has enabled them to identify conflict and poaching hotspots, improving their strategic deployment of assets and precision in wildlife security operations. Additionally, technology has enhanced their data collection, enabling more thorough reporting to secure ongoing funding and support operational growth.
Furthermore, technology also helps Big Life support local communities, especially the marginalized Maasai people in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem. Despite their international recognition, the Maasai in Big Life's operational area are often isolated from the traditional social services, and 50% of the population lives below the poverty line. Wildlife often wanders onto the community-owned land, causing troubles for the Maasai who rely on traditional livelihoods and bear the burden of wildlife damage.
By employing technology, Big Life has been able to help the Maasai farmers protect their crops from elephants. Their rapid response team prevented 200 crop raids by elephants in the past year alone, allowing farmers to bring their crops to harvest and support their families. Big Life plans to implement additional LoRaWAN sensors to notify them of crop-protection fence breaks and deploy teams more quickly to prevent even more damage.
Furthermore, Big Life uses its technological resources to directly assist the community in various other ways, such as apprehending poachers and responding to criminal activities. The organization believes that supporting local communities, especially underrepresented groups, will lead to more successful conservation efforts in protecting wildlife and their habitats. Big Life's vision is that if conservation supports the people, people will support conservation.
How can other conservation organizations learn from Big Life's success?
Big Life's use of EarthRanger and LoRaWAN presents a significant opportunity for other conservation organizations facing similar challenges. LoRaWAN has increased monitoring capabilities in the Greater Amboseli ecosystem cost-effectively and sustainably, allowing Big Life to collect and monitor data sets that would have been prohibitively expensive using other methods such as in-person surveys, satellite imagery, or traditional IP networks.
Given the challenges of scaling monitoring and sensors in a cost-effective and sustainable manner, many conservation entities are looking for solutions. In response to this, African Parks in Rwanda and Malawi have already started using LoRaWAN, which is affordable and utilizes sensor technology. The potential applications of LoRaWAN in conservation and resource management globally are numerous. Big Life expects the continued adoption of LoRaWAN alongside the use of EarthRanger and is keen to test and share their achievements and insights with the broader community.
While the integration of advanced technologies like EarthRanger and LoRaWAN can improve conservation management and operations, the cost of implementing and maintaining these systems may be a challenge for some organizations, including Big Life. Ongoing staff training to manage the hardware and software also adds to the costs. However, the increased data and improved operations from these technologies can increase donor confidence and secure necessary funding. Other conservation organizations can learn from Big Life's success by establishing partnerships, obtaining funding, and training staff to harness these technologies and enhance their monitoring capabilities for better wildlife protection.
How can I engage with Big Life Foundation?
Join forces with the Big Life Foundation today and play a vital role in using cutting-edge technology to safeguard wildlife and wild lands in East Africa. By becoming part of a global community dedicated to preserving nature and promoting awareness about endangered animals and their habitats, you can help make a difference.
If you have technological skills, expertise, or resources to contribute and want to support Big Life’s efforts, or learn more about how they are using tech in their work to preserve endangered species and their habitats, get in touch with Michelle Bergman at [email protected] or visit Big Life’s website at www.biglife.org.
Explore the 2023 Conservation Tech Showcase
Our new Conservation Tech Showcase is a series exploring successes and bold ideas in the world of conservation technology, shared through case studies about exciting projects from outstanding organizations around the world.