Can Artificial Intelligence Help Pinch Poachers?
31 October 2019
To his friends, Natercio Ngovene is a friendly father of six and grandfather of eight. He is generous with his smiles and quick with a joke. To strangers, however, Natercio may seem like a force to be reckoned with. His proud posture and fixed gaze demand respect. This is, of course, needed when you work as the head of anti-poaching in Mozambique’s Maputo Special Reserve.
As the threats to the protection of our natural resources continue to escalate, and the multitude of factors that influence the sustainability of conservation areas become increasingly more complex, it is crucial to develop and grow a skilled workforce that can take on modern conservation challenges. For this reason, Peace Parks Foundation utilises donor funding to support the employment of men like Natercio, who are responsible for so many successes in Mozambique’s conservation areas.
Recently celebrating a decade of service in the reserve, Natercio has greatly contributed to stabilising the wildlife crime in this 1 500 km2 conservation area.
When I first arrived here it felt like a war zone. We were only 15 rangers against a considerable number of poachers. If you didn’t know any better, looking at the sheer number of lanterns glowing at night and listening to the frequent sound of gunfire, you would’ve thought it was a hunting resort.
Now, 10 years later, things have changed. “I can honestly say that we now have poaching under control.” He believes this is the result of the joint and coordinated work of well-trained rangers, as well as the support given to capacitating the anti-poaching force with much-needed equipment and infrastructure. “We also have a helicopter for aerial patrol and quick reaction to potential poaching incidents, as well as a digital radio system and access to a specialised team of anti-poaching operators that help guide our missions.”
The journey into conservation
Natercio’s journey began in a quiet community in Mozambique’s Massingir district close to Limpopo National Park, which borders South Africa’s Kruger National Park. He says, “Growing up in an area where we often encountered wildlife allowed me to observe animals from a very young age; this instilled a deep sense of responsibility to keep them safe.”
When the country’s civil war broke out, Natercio, 17 at the time, was forced to leave school and flee to South Africa. “I found work as a cattle herder on a farm close to the Mozambique border and regularly walked great distances to visit my family, facing many dangers along the way.” A few years later Natercio moved to Johannesburg in search of better opportunities. He found temporary construction work but quickly realised that the competition for regular employment was high and not being able to speak English made things all the more difficult. “I decided to learn English and joined a school for refugees run by the Catholic Church. Because of my improved language skills, I was appointed by the United Nations in 1994 who needed people who could speak both English and native Mozambican languages. I became part of a programme which provided information to refugees on the dangers of land mines along the border. Being a refugee myself, I was the perfect candidate.”
In 1995 Natercio discovered that the Norwegian Council for Refugees was running a similar programme in Mozambique. “I realised that applying there would grant me the opportunity to return to my home country and still be able to assist refugees.”
A year after returning to his country, Natercio finally found his way into the conservation arena when Limpopo National Park needed people who could speak English to join their team. He says, “After all my years teaching English, this was a piece of cake. I started working in the park’s administration before being granted the opportunity to participate in ranger training in South Africa through a Peace Parks Foundation initiative.” Natercio was so successful in this, that upon his return he was chosen as a control officer of problematic animals, then as the coordinator of the Limpopo National Park’s northern region and later the southern region. He achieved remarkable successes and was subsequently moved to Maputo Special Reserve where he has spent the last decade as the reserve’s Coordinator of Supervision and Protection.
“Initially it was very difficult for me to leave Limpopo National Park, my friends, family and whole life was there, but at the time Maputo Special Reserve needed a lot of help and I decided to accept the challenge. I am happy I did because we managed to achieve quick results with the apprehension of wildlife criminals and removal of many traps and snares. I really enjoyed being part of that and knowing that it was achieved with my guidance.”
In May this year, Natercio celebrated his long service in Maputo Special Reserve by gathering his friends, family, and colleagues at the spot where he and his team arrested their first poacher. “It was an opportunity for me to thank the people who helped me get to where I am today, especially Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC) and Peace Parks Foundation.”
Today Maputo Special Reserve is thriving, with 60 well-trained field scouts and guards. The teams from both ANAC and Peace Parks are equipped and capacitated, focused on developing the reserve, supporting the surrounding communities, and protecting each animal that lives within its borders. “Of course, there are still signs of poaching within the reserve. We keep removing snares and traps set by subsistence poachers who target small antelopes. Our larger mammals remain under threat from wildlife crime syndicates against which we stand firm.”
Many people employed in conservation areas in countries like Mozambique have similar stories to tell. Their journeys have given them a kind of insight that cannot be acquired in classrooms and when you combine that with formal training the result is a workforce consisting of highly motivated, talented and skilled people. Peace Parks Foundation supports a number of these individuals in conservation areas across southern Africa.
Connected by a passion for conservation
Very often Peace Parks is approached by organisations that are passionate about contributing to conservation, wanting to support men and women who dedicate their time to restoring wilderness areas. This is tremendously helpful as those resources can then be directly applied to help conservation agencies employ more skilled people within parks and reserves. Chief Development Officer, Kathy Bergs, says, “It is amazing to see the variety and creativity donors bring to the fundraising table, often willing to contribute a portion of their sales in support of our people and projects.”
One such organisation is Hangmatta, a Swedish clothing brand that has come up with a clever way of raising funds. “The idea was that if you wanted to wear clothing with, for example, a snake print on, you had to pay a small “tax” to the reptile for using its pattern. The “tax”, which is a portion of the sale of each pair of pants within our Wild Collection, is then donated to Peace Parks Foundation who uses it for skilled capacitation in the park, strengthening their support to Maputo Special Reserve,” says Hangmatta Chief Executive Officer, Stefan Hultgren. “We also distribute information about how to support Peace Parks through our newsletter, website and informational brochures.”
In this way, a team of highly creative clothing designers are connected to dedicated men and woman in the reserve, indirectly working together to secure the future of all who live and work within it.
“We believe that there are no boundaries in nature. What affects animals and nature on the African continent, affects everyone on the planet. For us, supporting Peace Parks Foundation is as logical as source separation (recycling),” says Stefan.