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Monday, May 20, 2024

Park Rangers Are Using Silent Ebikes to Catch Poachers

At the end of 2021, a group of night poachers in a Mozambique national park—using torchlight to blind antelopes—were suddenly the ones left stunned in the dark. The poachers, local opportunists looking for bushmeat in the area’s savannahs, forests, and wetlands, are often able to kill hundreds of animals in one hunt with near impunity, using dogs to track and finish off their prey. They move with confidence because they can hear the noisy petrol motorbikes of the overstretched rangers from more than a mile away, enabling them not only to escape, but also to know where the park’s guardians are and hunt around them—easy enough to do in the thousands of square miles of terrain.

Not this time. A team of rangers silently moved in on their off-road ebikes, halting the hunt immediately. The nearly silent motor of the ebike—a factor that can make them an accident risk in the busy city—has become the surprise secret weapon for saving the world’s most endangered species.

“The petrol bikes we’ve used previously have all been loud, heavy, and expensive to keep running in these areas. These bikes are quiet, which makes it easier for us to approach poachers undetected,” says Mfana Xaba, anti-poaching team leader of Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC), a nonprofit organization based near South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It supplies trained rangers to 127 parks across Africa, including the one in Mozambique. (The exact locations where they are using the bikes is being kept secret, for fear of compromising the mission.)

Several poaching attempts have been stopped this year already, saving a variety of animals, including tiny antelopes—suni, red duikers, and blue duikers—which poachers kill in huge numbers for bushmeat. While these species are not classed as “at risk” themselves, they form an essential part of fragile ecosystems on which endangered animals rely, says Alan Gardiner, an ecology professor and head of the Applied Learning Unit at SAWC. “Suni and the other small antelope form prey items for many predators such as leopards, crowned eagles, and pythons, as well as influencing vegetation growth. When any species is impacted in a system it has a knock-on effect.”

Fifty Kalk Anti-Poaching bikes, made by the Swedish company CAKE, will now be used across SAWC’s African parks, after being tested across the continent’s varied terrain, including plains, forests, and jungle. “The previous petrol bikes were immensely problematic, and not just because of the noise,” says Stefan Ytterborn, CAKE’s founder and CEO. “The petrol to power them has to be brought in using trucks or even helicopters, which is extremely inefficient. As you have to store gas in the jungle, the petrol can then be stolen either by poachers themselves or local people who need it.”

CAKE already produced an existing recreational off-road ebike, and it teamed up with SAWC when the college realized the quiet, durable bike could be revolutionary in Africa’s varied topography. After some tweaks, the Kalk AP was sent to Africa. It weighs 80 kilograms (176 pounds) and can reach speeds of 56 miles per hour, with around five hours of ride time. CAKE switched its standard tires for 18-inch off-road tires like the ones used in motocross, and supplied a software system providing navigation, communication, and location identification, enabling CAKE to retrieve vehicle data and continue to monitor and improve each bike’s performance.

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Solar-powered mobile charging points mean rangers can camp in the bush for weeks. The charger, called the Goal Zero Solar Hub, can charge at least two bike batteries from empty to full in just three hours, and it takes 18 hours to charge itself from zero using the sun’s rays. “The charging points are a bit heavy—45 kilograms—but they can be pulled around on their built-in wheels like a suitcase,” says Ytterborn. “That means that at every station, there is a fresh battery on charge and ready to be swapped to the one on the motorcycle.”

This longevity means the rangers can disappear in teams of up to three to track poachers for several weeks, and spend longer embedded in rural communities, educating and supporting locals who often turn to poaching because they are desperate for food or money. Rangers currently distribute food vouchers and cash to dissuade locals from eating certain animals.

The Kalk AP bikes—which cost around £9,900 ($11,800)—will eventually be used across the continent, helping to protect Africa’s most endangered animals, such as the white and black rhinos that are attacked by professional, organized gangs seeking profits. Kruger National Park has lost almost 70 percent of its rhinos this decade, including 166 rhinos poached during the first six months of 2020.

Mfana Xaba, who has overseen the rangers in the field in Mozambique, believes the ebike will finally give them an edge on the persistent poachers. “Meat poachers are constantly trying to penetrate our area—hundreds of thousands of acres—and the poachers are very good at hiding. The element of surprise is very important. Forests and wetlands are the most difficult terrains for us to cross, but the silence of the bikes is by far and away their greatest attribute, as well as their very low running costs.”

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of WIRED UK magazine.

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