Using SMART Technology to Protect Wild Cats in Southern Africa

By Choolwe Mulenga
Panthera SMART Coordinator for Zambia and Zimbabwe

Lions looking out

July 16, 2021

In this Field Notes blog, SMART Coordinator for Zambia and Zimbabwe Choolwe Mulenga explains how SMART software has made it easier to analyze, report and store data in a secure manner and how this amazing and innovative technology helps us protect wild cats and the wild places where they live.

As the Panthera SMART Coordinator for Zambia and Zimbabwe, my primary role is coordinating the maintenance, implementation and day-to-day operations in Panthera's SMART sites. This involves working closely with both the local wildlife statutory authorities and several NGO partners in the landscape. SMART is software used to monitor, report and evaluate site protection activities at critical places where we protect wild cats and other wildlife. At the moment, it's one of the leading tools being used globally for different conservation activities. Some of the ways we use SMART to conserve cats and the landscape that they exist in include:

Antipoaching patrols

All Panthera supported patrol teams are trained to use SMART devices to collect data and record all animal sightings as they patrol. This process has helped identify carnivore movement patterns and understand their distribution across different national parks and landscapes. Importantly, through the use of SMART, we can also track and understand the threats that the carnivores are facing in different national parks over time.

Through targeted anti-poaching patrols, we have intensified efforts in areas carnivores have been sighted and are known to utilize. For example, we have increased snare sweeps across different regions where large cats are known to roam. Our goal is to conserve and protect the animals within their landscapes by removing these dangerous traps.

Men on truck

Biodiversity monitoring

SMART technology is also used for biodiversity monitoring data collection and analysis. For example, in Kafue National Park, Zambia, we use SMART to record samples such as fur or scat, as well as direct animal observations during transects. A transect is a line across a habitat or part of a habitat. It can be measured as simply as using a string or rope placed in a line on the ground. We count the number of observations of each species along the transect at regular intervals.

In the park, 12 km transects are situated in each 15x15 km pre-defined grid block where a road is present. During our trip along each transect, a professional tracker sits on the front of the vehicle and calls out the different animal spoors that they see. All observations are then entered into the SMART Mobile devices, alongside any direct animal observations made along the transect. In addition, we also use SMART to record camera trap deployments that provide us with images of local wildlife.

Human-wildlife conflict data

Unfortunately, there's been a rise in conflict between humans and wildlife. Conservationists have created specific SMART databases to record this human-wildlife conflict (HWC) information in many protected areas. Using all the information collected and stored in the SMART system, we can quickly identify which areas and villages are most affected by carnivore conflicts. We can also use SMART to assess different mitigation techniques and their effectiveness against HWC incidents. For example, is using firecrackers an effective method to keep lions away? Are traditional or reinforced bomas more effective at keeping cattle safe from predation during the night? By answering such questions, we can make informed decisions about where to place effort and resources in the community.

Sitting on a truck

Citizen science program

We have been running this SMART program in Kafue National Park since 2016 in order to monitor the distribution and movement of the carnivores within the park. Safari guides across the landscape are given SMART devices and taught to record all large carnivore sightings on their game drives. Not only does this help them provide experiences for animal-seeking tourists, but it also helps researchers understand individual animals’ distributions across the landscape. The information collected also provides very nice metrics for future tourism activities.

SMART data collection training

We have conducted several different SMART data collection training events across Zambia and Zimbabwe to upskill field officers on collecting data using this specific technology. For example, in March, we conducted a SMART data collection training in the Lunga Luswishi-Kasempa sector in Kafue National Park, Zambia. Lunga is one of many sites in Africa where data collection was traditionally conducted through the use of paper forms and manual GPS recording. Thanks to SMART technology, advances in conservation cause devices to record information, save a lot of time and energy and reduce human errors associated with manual data collection.

Looking at the technology

We have also helped with joint data collection trainings with different NGOs, such as our partnership with Conservation South Luangwa, to implement SMART in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. In Zimbabwe, Panthera has also partnered with many NGOs, most prominently the Zambezi Society, to implement SMART in the Charara Safari Area. These examples are only a few of the different NGOs that we work with using SMART for various conservation activities.

SMART software has made it easier to analyze, report and store data in a secure manner without the extra time and excess paper forms of the past. As we train more people on the use of SMART, we create more access in data management and for the people who oversee it. In May, we conducted a data management training to capacitate different SMART analysts from various national parks within Zambia. This is the same training that we held in August 2020 in Kafue National Park, before COVID-19 slowed down conservation efforts globally.

One of my personal goals for Panthera's future is to help build stronger technological capacity amongst government authorities in the different countries where we work. These efforts will include creating and implementing SMART curriculums to be taught as standard modules at wildlife colleges and universities.

Looking at the computer

With the world changing and becoming increasingly more digital, it's nice to see technology used to conserve wild cats and their habitats. As a conservationist working in Africa, it's heartwarming to wake up every morning knowing that as the world is advancing more and more into the technological era, there is software that has been developed to improve the effectiveness of conservation. My dream as a proud member of the Panthera SMART team is to see the continued expansion and growth of this critical technology in response to growing conservation challenges and changes.