As the temperature soars over 100 degrees, our ranger patrol in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Protected Forest is in full swing. A whining sound alerts us to a chainsaw operating in the distance. The team goes into action. AK-47s cocked and ready, the three rangers move forward circling a spot on a dry riverbank where timber is being illegally sawn.
Suddenly a lookout spots one of the rangers and hoots; the man cutting timber hightails it off into the forest, chainsaw in hand. They are gone in moments, a perfect escape. Approaching the crime scene, the lead ranger pulls out his smartphone, wakes it from rest and presses the screen to start recording data. In a few minutes he has typed in details of the sawn timber and tools left at the scene, taken a photo and a waypoint, and saves the record. Collecting the contraband that can be hand-carried, the team heads back to their station to make their report.
As the race to save Asia’s threatened forests and wildlife heats up, law enforcement staff on the frontline have their work cut out for them. As an example, Preah Vihear is one of Asia’s premier wildlife areas supporting populations of species threatened with extinction including banteng, Asian elephant, giant ibis, green peafowl and Eld’s deer. These and other wildlife are threatened by poaching for illegal trade in horns, skins and meat. A new technology is being rolled out in reserves like this one to help efforts to stop poaching and recover these flagship species.
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) is at once a software tool and an approach for monitoring park effectiveness by turning data collected by rangers into information that can be used for park management and protection. SMART was first designed in 2013 as part of a collaboration between my organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and eight other conservation agencies concerned with protecting the world’s wildlife and wildlands, called the SMART partnership.
SMART software can be used to create a database for a conservation area. At Preah Vihear rangers run dozens of patrols each month and record their movements and activities. This data is collected by rangers in the field on a GPS, Android-based smartphone, tablet or PDA, and later uploaded to SMART back in the office. SMART can then be used to ask questions about patrol movements, human activities, wildlife, or habitats: How many foot patrols by Patrol Team A resulted in encounters with people involved in illegal timber cases? What was the frequency of patrols in 1km2 grid cells across the reserve? Where were elephant carcasses recorded by law enforcement teams that were illegally killed? Results can be specified over a month, quarter, or any other time period. Reports can be produced to inform managers what is happening their parks on a regular basis. Most importantly, results from ranger patrols can be linked to an incentive scheme that rewards teams for their efforts.
A SMART training programme helps develop skills in protected area staff at three levels: data collecting skills for field rangers, database management skills for park administrators, and information management and decision-making skills for park managers. In the first level of training, field rangers learn the importance of patrol data and practical techniques in data collection including use of patrol forms, GPS, and digital cameras. Patrol leaders also learn how to use electronic forms loaded onto tablets for data recordings. In Cambodia, ranger teams have been trained and mobilized across 10 protected areas to conduct patrolling and surveillance of wildlife, forestry, and fisheries crime.
In a second level of training, data managers learn the nuts and bolts of the SMART software tool, from creating a conservation area, data models to input patrol data, running simple analyses, creating reports, and administrative tasks. Since 2013, 40 data managers have graduated from this course and are involved in managing law enforcement databases in Cambodia.
In a third level of training, park managers learn what kinds of information can be created in SMART, how to interpret reports, how to use the planning function to set targets for patrol teams, and how to incorporate intelligence data in patrol planning. This training is perhaps the most challenging as it takes time to bring park managers around to using new technology and approaches for wildlife management.
SMART has been setup across more than 140 conservation sites, in 30 countries around the world. I have been closely involved with the SMART training programme and helping some of these conservation sites to implement the system, first in Asia, and more recently in southern Africa. A number of national governments have signed up for SMART as their standard tool for monitoring park effectiveness. One of these is Cambodia where SMART is now up and running at Preah Vihear, and nine other sites under two Ministries.
As our ranger patrol finally pulls into the station after a long day out in the forest, I know we have not stopped the poachers we had set out to find, but we have surely made it more difficult for them to operate because our rangers and managers are working smarter.