Technical Difficulties: Understanding the Realities

In their three-part interview from our new series Technical Difficulties, Colby Loucks and Eric Becker share the failures they've encountered and learned from throughout six years of working on the WWF-US Wildlife Crime Technology Project.

In their first case study, Colby and Eric share how infrastructure, rigorous testing, realistic expectations, and understanding the realities of working on the ground with anti-poaching rangers factor into the lessons learned from this project.

Download the case study here

Header image: Rangers in the Maasai Mara National Reserve are testing new FLIR thermal cameras and human detection software designed to differentiate poachers from animals. © WWF-US / Colby Loucks

Date published: 2021/10/13

From insects nesting in enclosures, elephants knocking down equipment, weather interfering with projects, park infrastructure limiting technological impact, and untested technologies pushing the boundaries of trust from on-the-ground partners, Colby Loucks and Eric Becker have navigated and learned from a wide variety of challenges during their six years of work on the WWF-US Wildlife Crime Technology Project. 

Whether matters of inconvenience or large-scale missteps with long-term impacts on on-the-ground project sustainability and growth, all of these experiences have helped Colby and Eric strengthen WWF's conservation technology work with a better understanding of what it takes to keep technology functioning in spite of difficult environments and wildlife, and to build the infrastructure and trust needed to make conservation tech work impactful over time.

Over the course of three articles based on interviews with Colby and Eric, we’ll discuss the wide range of challenges met by the WWF-US Wildlife Crime Technology Project, and the lessons that others can apply to their own conservation technology work .

Read on to see what they’ve shared with us about meeting the challenges they've faced together in the field.

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In 2012, WWF was the recipient of a $5 million grant from Google.org, to be used in the fight against poaching. Google.org’s support allowed us to launch the Wildlife Crime Technology Project (WCTP), the vehicle through which WWF and our partners have explored and implemented technological solutions to stop poaching. We realized that we needed to rapidly pivot from a top-down technology-driven approach to a bottom-up problem-driven approach if we were to make a meaningful impact on the poaching crisis. Consequently, we set out to test an umbrella of technologies. Some were successful. Some were failures. Some of the successes started with failures.

A significant portion of this grant went toward attempting to use drones to stop poachers in Africa . But this idea came from a faulty thought process: we were trying to find a problem that fit the technology we already had, when it would’ve been more effective to consider how the problem could be best addressed - even if that meant not using state-of-the-art technology. If you’re more interested in putting a certain technology to work than in solving the problem at hand with the right tools, you run the risk of using the “sexiest” new tech tools as novelties rather than actual solutions.

"Sometimes the real issue is that your idea, as good as it may be, is further along than the technology."

In the end, the drones simply didn’t have capacity to cover the kind of ground needed to effectively survey and monitor such a large space. Back then, the battery life of the drones we were using limited us to about one hour in the air.  It was like looking through a soda straw at a tiny portion of the landscape. 

The drones’ failure was a result of not having initial conversations about whether this was the right solution at the right time, and not doing enough testing beforehand to be sure it’d be effective once on the ground (or, in the case of drones, in the air.) Drones can be incredibly useful under the right circumstances, especially as they continue to improve with time; within the past five years, battery power alone has seen huge improvements for drones. So the issue isn't always as simple as the chosen technology being the wrong option for a project - sometimes the real issue is that your idea, as good as it may be, is further along than the technology. With time to catch up, that technology could end up being the right option somewhere down the road.

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Ranger at the Mara Conservancy at Maasai Mara National Reserve Kenya. As part of WWF's Wildlife Crime Technology project. © WWF-US / James Morgan

A similar issue occurred as we were seeking to test the ability of small, portable radar units to identify and detect poachers. We worked with a park in southern Africa to install a network of these sensors. However, the prototype almost immediately failed. We had rushed testing the prototype into the field without the proper vetting, costing us time and money in the end. 

When failures like these happen, tech projects can do more damage than good and negatively impact relationships with on-the-ground partners. We wasted the nature reserve staff’s time, and when the technology did not work as expected, they also became skeptical of using this and other technology in the future. An experience with outsiders “parachuting in” with technology that ends up being ineffective can cause government agencies and other partners to become jaded about the overall effectiveness of conservation technology, and this makes it even harder to launch another tech project - even one that could have more chances of success. Based on these failures, we have learned to vet our technology in more controlled field environments (in our case, in the United States) and do it repeatedly to ensure that it works before we reach out to our partners to deploy the technology.

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On June 1, 2015, WWF Staff tested the forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera system on a farm in Maryland. Eric Becker (Wildlife Technology Engineer) stands near the FLIR camera while Colby Loucks (Director of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project) walks through a field, acting as a poacher, for testing purposes. © WWF-US / Eric Kruszewski

Before traveling to any potential conservation tech site, you should try to keep a bigger picture of potential issues and impacts in mind before investing in technology. It’s nice to have solutions in mind, but you need to visit the site and put in the time upfront to understand the realities on the ground first. The challenges and issues faced by the rangers and communities you’re working with may be very different from what you imagined or expected while thinking up the perfect way to deploy your new technology. 

For example, you might think that if park rangers only had access to the latest technological solutions, they’d be able to put them to use immediately to detect poachers or locate snares. But if you go along on a patrol with those rangers, you might realize that their most urgent priorities aren’t high-tech tools, but basic and essential equipment like better flashlights for night patrols, better boots for covering long distances, or high-quality tents to keep them out of the elements while patrolling. 

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Ranger anti-poaching unit at the Mara Conservancy at Maasai Mara National Reserve Kenya. As part of WWF's Wildlife Crime Technology project. © WWF-US / James Morgan

" Instead of aiming to change their methods entirely, you should aim to use your technology and support to enhance their existing techniques."

You may also find that some parks don’t have the infrastructure and capacity to support a high-tech solution at scale yet. A state-of-the-art detection and alert system does no good if a lack of connectivity prevents it from being effective, if they don’t have working radios to speak to each other, or if there aren’t enough operational vehicles for rangers to respond to alerts in the first place. In some locations with massive need and massive poaching presence, technology has potential to have an impact the day we turn it on, but it makes no difference if the rest of the park and staff aren’t ready to support and maintain it in the long-term. Ensuring that park infrastructure is able to support new technology before trying to use it on the ground can save invaluable time, money, and effort. 

That’s not to say that these parks can’t still benefit from technology! Instead of aiming to change their methods entirely, you should aim to use your technology and support to enhance their existing techniques. If rangers have the best success catching poachers by sitting in silence and waiting to ambush the culprits, tethering a drone overhead that will alert nearby poachers to their presence in that area isn’t going to work. 

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David and Colby Loucks, Deputy Director Wildlife Conservation at WWF US and lead of the WCPT getting ready to install the mobile FLIR camera system at the Mara Conservancy, Maasai Mara National Reserve. As part of WWF's Wildlife Crime Technology Project. © WWF-US / James Morgan

Understanding their needs and techniques means accepting that sometimes the most successful solution won’t be the fanciest, most exciting, or most high-tech option. The most successful thing we’ve done in our work with anti-poaching thermal cameras was simply putting a camera on a basic tripod, and then adding a motor to it to make scanning the area easier and less labor-intensive. Just helping the rangers see people from farther away at night made a huge difference, and hundreds of poachers have been arrested because of this fairly simple tool. Brainstorming with your partners on the ground from the beginning will help you find solutions that fit their work instead of forcing them to change their work around some new technology. And importantly, this will also allow you to manage expectations at the start, plan for sustainability and maintenance, avoid huge disappointments and risks, and address the issue at hand all at once. 

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Rangers in the Maasai Mara National Reserve are testing new FLIR thermal cameras and human detection software designed to differentiate poachers from animals. © WWF-US / Colby Loucks

"Having a local technology expert is one way to ensure the seamless operations of technology projects."

Ensuring any technology solution is easy to maintain in the field also goes a long way toward preventing failures. CR-123 lithium ion batteries have defeated some of our best laid plans. For example, we once donated some night vision equipment to partners in Africa. What we failed to realize is that the CR-123 batteries used in this equipment were difficult to buy in many African countries, making the sustainability of this equipment a challenge. Further, developing or sourcing as many parts locally helps to ensure that any future repairs or improvements can be done through local expertise and supply lines.

On a similar note, you want to be aware of how government or partnership buy-in and local technology expertise can impact your project’s longevity, timeline, and impact. In many countries where we work, there are taxation challenges related to importing technology or technology components into the country. Taxes alone could increase the costs of the project by 20-30%. We learned the hard way that ensuring local or government support may be critical to getting tax exemptions, but in turn, that process is likely to add weeks, months (even years) to the timeline of your technology project. 

Having the IT or local capacity at your project site will also be essential to maximizing the performance and impacts of your project. We’ve had challenges in some project sites where the ‘system goes down’ – and no one knows what to do or are afraid to do anything that might break it. We are often able to fix the problem remotely; frequently, that fix is to just cycle power (turn everything off, turn everything on). But the anti-poaching systems could be down for any time between days to weeks before we are able to help solve the problem. Having a local technology expert is one way to ensure the seamless operations of technology projects. 

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Mara Conservancy field technician installing mobile FLIR camera unit at Mara Conservancy at Maasai Mara National Reserve. As part of WWF's Wildlife Crime Technolgy Project. © WWF-US / James Morgan

Planning ahead and taking steps to understand the places you’re working in, the people you’re working with, and the realities of the challenges they’re facing are all absolutely key to mitigating risk, maintaining trust of partners, and ensuring that technology is a useful tool rather than an expensive hindrance. And when failures do occur, recognizing what you can learn from that experience will improve that understanding and strengthen your next efforts. Every success we’ve had is built on encountering challenges along the way. We are now at the point where we’ve collected 6+ years of failures from across a number of technology projects, and these continue to inform our work today. 

Download the Case Study

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This case study is the first in our Technical Difficulties Editorial Series. The full series will be available as a downloadable issue in December, 2021. The Understanding the Realities case study is now available for download here

Join Colby and Eric next week to read more about the unique challenges presented by working with drones, and their advice for effectively incorporating drones into projects.

About the Authors

Colby Loucks leads WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project, harnessing new technologies and the internet to improve our ability to track and manage wildlife, stop poaching, and reduce human-wildlife conflict. Colby has expertise in GIS, conservation biology, and landscape ecology. He has a Master’s in Environmental Management from Duke University in GIS and conservation planning.

Eric Becker researches and develops sensor based systems to detect poachers in protected areas in Africa and Asia to stop wildlife crime. Becker also leverages advancements in the Internet of Things to find energy-efficient, low-cost methods and systems to scale up technologies to solve the planet’s most urgent issues.

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