Johannesburg - A challenge to think smarter has not only stimulated Mpumalanga-based ecologist Michael Grover, 30, in his efforts to find new weapons for use in the war on rhino poaching, but it’s also garnered him a trip to Spain to meet like-minded conservationists.
Grover, part of the management team at the Sabi Sand private nature reserve, is one of two winners in the international CoalitionWILD Challenge for young people. Part of his prize was a fully sponsored trip to the World Wilderness Congress, WILD10, in the Spanish city of Salamanca, where his award was announced at the weekend.
CoalitionWILD is a movement of people under 30 “to create a wilder world” and to share innovative ideas and activities through social media platforms.
It was established as a partnership between the US-based The WILD Foundation, The Murie Centre, also in the US, and Canadian Simon Jackson, who as a 13-year-old founded the youth-led environmental initiative called Spirit Bear Youth Coalition that won him a Time Magazine Hero for the Planet award.
The challenge involved a call to young people to showcase innovative things that they’re doing for conservation.
The response was huge: 83 projects from 22 countries on six continents were submitted in just a couple of months, and judges found them “extremely uplifting” and “really very difficult to choose the winners”, movement “motivator” Crista Valentino told WILD10.
Grover had been alerted to the challenge by young Dutch conservationist Jordi van Oort, who is one of the movement’s “visionaries”. (Another visionary is Lincoln Meyer of the Port Elizabeth-based Wilderness Foundation.)
Van Oort had told him about “this really cool challenge going on” and suggested he submit an entry – “just to show what we’re doing, so I did and basically it grew from there”.
Grover’s entry was the app that he’d created to allow the reserve’s staff to fully document all rhino poaching incidents.
This eliminated the hugely time-consuming task of having to manually complete an official report on each incident, and it also provides a valuable database for easy referencing.
Grover explained to the congress that Sabi Sand was part of the 2.5m hectare Greater Kruger National Park where a rhino poaching war was raging – “and we’re losing the battle”.
“I’m not trained as a soldier, so I decided to do things that I know best, and that’s technology.
“We’re a small management team and we’d ended up just running back and forth between carcasses, driving three hours to go and get a photo or a GPS (position) of a certain carcass, and it just took up too much time.
“So what I did was to Google ‘how to create your own app’, and I found a company that designs a digital form app,” which he adapted for use in their rhino conservation efforts.
“It’s now changed everything completely – you can put a photo in it, a GPS location, any data that you like. I edit online so I can have a dropbox for our field rangers so that anything they find, be it a cut in the fence or a footprint on the ground, a carcass, can be reported.
“This data gets sent through to us by e-mail in a format that I can send off as an official report straightaway, plus it also collects and stores that data.
“So what I’ve been doing every month is to go back through the data and look for any similarities – for example, is there a cut in the fence at the same place every time and if so, how are we going to deal with that? That was the first step, and then we need to move forward from here.”
Other anti-poaching efforts by the reserve include infusing horns with an indelible dye and a poison, through the Rhino Rescue project, putting GPS trackers in all the reserve’s vehicles as a way to check possible inside corruption, and the extensive use of camera traps.
“We’ve had to think outside the box,” Grover said. “We just don’t have the resources of the army and the expertise of hundreds of people – we have four people in our team and we have to make the best of what we do.”
And it’s not only the rhinos that are under threat, he says, pointing to the recent mass poisoning of elephants in Zimbabwe – “it’s coming our way”.
Grover is delighted to be in Salamanca, saying winning the challenge has provided him with both networking and inspirational mentorship opportunities, and a platform “to get out there and spread my ideas”.
“It’s incredible. The opportunities to network have just been fantastic, and it’s very inspiring being here – it’s overwhelming to hear the names of the ‘top brass’ and to meet them, because they all have influence in government, they’re involved with policy makers all the time.
“So if I can tell them my story, and they also tell me why they’re doing things so that I can understand it, I can have a glimmer of hope that we’re fighting the battle correctly, and it’s not just a lost cause.” - The Star
l John Yeld’s attendance at WILD10 is being sponsored by the Hans Hoheisen Trust.