IFAW's tenBoma project profiled in The Christian Science Monitor

This article, written by Story Hinckley, originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on October 23, 2017. --KB

From ISIS to elephants: the tale of a unique anti-poaching force

The same geospatial mapping techniques and data analysis used by the US military to fight terrorism are now being deployed in a sophisticated offense to rival poachers’ criminal networks.

Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas says the two decades she spent fighting terror networks was the perfect preparation for her current job: saving elephants in Kenya.

Intelligence missions, including the 2006 kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, taught the US Air Force officer that classified intelligence is “only one piece of the puzzle.” She and other intelligence support officers learned to look for nontraditional clues when assessing the security of an area. It was in Africa, while working on a mission targeting the Lord’s Resistance Army, that she first started relying on the intuition of elephants.

The presence of elephants, it turned out, was a surprisingly reliable indicator of an area’s safety. During migration, elephants follow paths etched in memory, but they adjust those routes to avoid areas that they sense may be unsafe. By studying the movements of elephant herds, she was able to help keep the members of her unit safe.

She left active duty to return the favor. If clues from the natural world add nuance to information gathered from sophisticated intelligence streams employed by the military, perhaps military technology and strategy could help inform the fight against poaching.

“There were hard-fought and valuable lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that we could apply to achieve a more disruptive effect [in poaching],” says Cuevas. “Whether you are in Al Qaeda or ISIL, you have to have a local network that you tap into and it works the same for [the] wildlife network. It is a constellation of actors.”

To better understand those actors, Cuevas has brought cutting-edge technology more commonly associated with modern warfare to the anti-poaching fight. The same geospatial mapping techniques and data analysis used by the US military to fight terrorism are now being deployed in a sophisticated offense to rival poachers’ criminal networks.

And those efforts appear to be paying off. Between May and September, with the help of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Cuevas's group the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) facilitated the arrest of 21 suspects during counter-poaching operations. Together, the two groups helped reduce poaching in Kenya's Tsavo National Parks by 43 percent from 2015 to 2017. In some previous hotspots, poaching appears to have ceased entirely.

VIEW: CITES Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) data | Karen Norris/Staff

Other groups borrow from military protocols to combat poaching as well, but many of those efforts focus on launching an all-out war on poaching, complete with gun battles. Critics of that approach caution that “green militarization” encourages an arms race and marginalizes impoverished communities. Others say counter-poaching efforts should focus on reducing demand for ivory in Asia.

Cuevas says her approach is different because it works directly with local communities and relies more on data than weaponry.

“Data and information are the new ammunition,” says Cuevas, in a video produced by IFAW, where she is a senior vice president.

Cuevas started working for the IFAW two years ago. The group is headquartered in Yarmouth Port, Mass., but Cuevas now lives in Nairobi, where she leads the organization’s tenBoma program in the Tsavo Parks.

The program borrows from a community policing philosophy known as nyumba kumi, or “10 houses” that look out for one another, similar to a neighborhood watch. TenBoma merges that idea with the Swahili concept of boma, which refers to an open area of bush that offers shelter and safety. The program’s mission is to improve information sharing among disparate anti-poaching efforts and to carve out a network of safe spaces for elephants among Kenya’s national parks and surrounding areas.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Dr. Joseph Okori
Regional Director, Southern Africa and Program Director, Landscape Conservation
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime