Raising a new generation of conservationists using technology

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    Whenever people congregate to talk about technology in rural schools of Kenya, they always have some airtime for the failed laptop project.

    Forget about the much-touted laptop per child initiative-that had been promised by the current regime (Jubilee government)during campaign, not even the negative publicity that it has attracted.

    Deep in the rocky terrain of Laikipia North, pupils from Mpala Academy are using technology to live up to their childhood dreams.

    For them, it is not about computer games or even watching their favourite cartoons online but; they are literally clicking their way to ecological conservation.

    Marion Nafula turns on the desktop computer, and with ease clicks on search engine-Google Chrome.

    She navigates through websites and finally settles on one. The 13-year old then waits.

    Within seconds a site pops up.

    When I first saw a tab popping up showing video footage and sounds of hippos and occasional chirping of birds, I knew she had accidentally clicked on the wrong site!

    To Young Nafula, she had found what she was looking for.

    The movement of the Hippos on the bank of the river through the screen created a wild expedition and a sight to marvel at.

    We were studying the behaviour of hippos in the banks of river Ewaso Nyiro.

    Smiling sheepishly she retorted; today we have so many of them!

    For Marion, navigating through the site has been easy; and so I was wrong on this.

    “I used to see animals on books, now I am able to monitor their behavior, movement and even learn more about them thanks to technology” Marion said

    Nicholas Lonyiko, 12, has set his eyes on a dream too.

    The standard five pupil, for a long time, had harboured the ambition of becoming an environmentalist in future.

    Lonyiko too, chatted and exchanged notes with other pupils and other researchers on the site about animal conservation, especially Hippos.

    “I want to take care of the animals and the environment in which they live in, because I just love nature” Lonyiko said

    “I can tell the number of Hippos, and other animals that are around the same habitat in a matter of seconds”

    What Marion and Nicholas have been enjoying is a platform dubbed MpalaLive.

    MpalaLive is a platform whose main purpose is to find out the behaviour of hippos, effects on graze land and how they interact with other animals in their ecology.

    Little research has been done on Hippos in the country, so we narrowed down to the Hippo project to indentify their effects on pasture and map out their behaviour.

    “From a ranch to an ecological centre, we have created a living laboratory where scientists, environmentalists and young students interact on ecological matters” said Margaret Kinnaird-Executive Director Mpala Research Centre

    “The technology is one of its kind to be in the bush in Africa with a keen interest on Hippos”

    Mr. George Mwangi, I.T officer with Mpala Research Centre, explains that there are three cameras that are mounted high up and microphones next to the river bank that captures the video and sound.

    The I.T cabinet then gets information from the cameras and microphones that are put around the pool to collect sound.

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    Through microwave technology, he explains, the footage is captured by a mast at the higher part of the ranch that taps the waves and sends information to a dish at the research centre.

    The video footage is then transcoded into the server. From the server it is then directed to the Mpala.org and Explore.org sites.

    “With this technology we are able to monitor the risks that other animal species might be undergoing in the ranch’

    “The video feed is realtime, one can actually take measures incase of any danger from poachers” Mr.Mwangi said.

    The whole set up has invested in solar energy hence conserving the environment at the same time.
    “We understand the issues of climate change and its effect on the environment. We want to mitigate and conserve the little that is left” said Margaret

    Fred Kiboko, camera operator at the centre, explains that there are three cameras that are in operation at the pool and is able to pick all activities at any given time.

    HippoCam Low gets all the movements from the surrounding pool; HippoCam High mainly gets a high angle shot of the entire pool to curb vandals. And RiverCam concentrates on the hippos’ behaviour in water.

    Mr.Kiboko adds that through Field Guide the site visitors can take short knowledge tour about the animal displayed on the screen.

    “For example if the screen shows video of zebra, you will be able to know the total number and types that are currently in the ranch and; current and ongoing research on the same” he explained

    Through these cameras, we have also been able to keep data of other wild animals and their locations hence preventing human-wildlife conflict that was once rampant in the ranch.

    The success story of the technology, Margaret says, has been boosted by citizen scientist who logs in as far as United States to watch the information about what the scientists are studying at the research centre apart from the Hippo project.

    “This project went live in August this year; so far around 180 visitors are on the site at any given time. It shows that people are now taking conservation seriously”

    Although the centre has dedicated at least 10MB of data for the project, they have often encountered offline modes running into hours.

    Instability of internet connectivity owing to the distance from Nanyuki (main town) to the research centre is a challenge to the schools that are using the technology.

    “The other time I was watching elephants, then the internet went off; so I had to wait! It is sometimes very sad” said Marion

    Another bottleneck is the lack of interesting activities happening around the pool that makes manning the cameras tedious.

    Power logistics and risk of vandalism of the machine at the river bank were also cited as some of the challenges that affected the project.

    However, pupils have also been able to learn the new government structure thanks to easy access to internet.

    What is not lost either is the fact that the community has also been intergrated in the project and are able to access the internet albeit on a regulatory framework.

    “Apart from teaching pupils about environment, we also give the community time to enjoy the internet-around 30mins during weekends” said Mr. John Maina-Mpala Academy Head Teacher.

    The research center has collaborated with schools around Laikipia to form wildlife conservation clubs that help the pupils cultivate the virtue of caring for the environment.

    “We have ten schools within Laikipia North that are members of the club, after teaching them at class level about environment through a curriculum guide, the club holds yearly conservation day where pupils interact and presents their projects” explained Maina.

    The schools that have benefited from the project include; Mpala Academy, Lekiji Primary, Olgooji, Limotiok, Kimanjo, Ogilgil, Naibor, Daraja, Kimanjo, Kinajo Secondary among others.

    Margaret concludes that the uptake of the technology through the hits on MpalaLive has forced the centre to the drawing board on the need to upgrade to mobile application.

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    “We are working on increasing the knowledge of Hippos through a mobile phone application that will be launched very soon” she noted.

    Origin of Mpala Research Centre

    When two brothers Sam and George Small came to Kenya on a hunting expedition, they fell in love with a ranch in the middle of Ewaso Nyiro River.

    What they did not know then was that, the 48,000ha piece of land would one day become ‘a living laboratory’ and an ecological centre for researchers and scientists all over the world.

    Sam Small then bought the land where the research lies in 1952 from a Czechoslovakian. He did not have an idea of a research centre then, so he dedicated the piece of land to wildlife conservation.

    It 1969, George Small inherited the land and put his energy on conserving the habitats and wildlife of Mpala after Sam died. . In 1989 George created the Mpala Wildlife Foundation and the Mpala Research Trust to fund the activities necessary to achieve his vision.

    He operated the ranch as a commercial property, until 1994 when he started the research centre.

    Today, the centre holds about 50 student scientists working on different research topics; 40 from international universities and 10 from the local universities around the country.

    We have researchers from different universities around the world…..around 150 researchers and 300 students come to do their research here

    Princeton University, Smithsonian Institute, National Museums of Kenya and Kenya Wildlife Service are some of the board members of the ranch

    The students come from as far as Yale University, University of California, Princeton University and the Smithsonian Institute among others

    “To allow more students, the research center has always subsidized fee for students. There is also a fund started by George Small.

    Oljoogi, Segera and Shololo are some of the ranches that border Mpala ranch.

    By Clifford Akumu

    Clifford is a freelance environmental/science writer based in Kenya.

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