by Nick Sharp

Nothing happens without our radio network. It is, after our rangers, the most important tool at our disposal. All day everyday there is a constant stream of information passing over it, connecting the 21 Big Life camps around the 2 million acres of the Amboseli eco-system that we work in. It is used to coordinate operations, manage and coordinate vehicle movements, organise Predator Compensation Fund verifications and much more. It is nothing short of essential to the work we do.

Big Life has however grown hugely in the last 18 months, and the old analog radio technology that we currently rely on is showing its age and falling short in some key areas. A few months of research, and more recently consultation, has fostered a solution using Motorola’s digital radios that more than plugs the holes of our current system, and would give us capacity beyond what we thought possible. 

We have come up with a solution that would (and this really isn’t an exaggeration) transform our operation.

The biggest problem is that we currently operate on a single channel. That means when you ‘push to talk’, your message (or conversation) is heard by the whole team even if it is only intended for a single person. This has particular repercussions when on covert operations where one needs to keep information (and therefore communication) within a small group. In such cases we have had to revert to cell phones, an imperfect solution given the bad signal our area of operation is plagued with, but utterly necessary to make sure that no operation is compromised by leaked information.

The new digital system would give Big Life rangers and support staff the ability to decide who they walk to. It would be possible to talk to everyone, a group of people or just a single person. On operations it would therefore be possible to keep communications within a small group - essentially creating a temporary network - while everyone else in the Big Life team continues to use their radios as normal, unable to hear the sensitive information being shared by the team on an operation. This feature goes even further with the ability for radios to call each other to facilitate one-to-one communication.

The next killer feature is that the new digital radios (vehicle or handheld) have built in GPS, and as such can be tracked in real time. 

This sorts out one of our greatest problems in a way we didn’t think possible: by using radios which all patrols carry and without relying on multiple devices and systems. All the positions of all the radios (and therefore patrols and vehicles) would be shown on large screens in the radio room of our Chyulu HQ, each radio broadcasting its position over the radio network at 5 minute intervals. 

Patrols will be easier to monitor, vehicle movements easier to manage, and incidents easier to respond to – we would know exactly where all our units were at all times and which unit was best placed to respond to a given incident. The fuel savings that that level of proper fleet management would afford would also be huge. We believe that in a matter of a few years, these radios would pay for themselves in saved fuel costs. This feature is also very useful when a radio (or vehicle) is lost or stolen, it can be disabled and tracked.

Another advantage of this digital system is that all the data coming from the radios would be logged and stored on a server in our radio room - every radio call (including a recording of what was said), all the position data and every message sent. 

This would allow us to analyse patrols, build up weekly or monthly maps of the areas covered, and see exactly which areas are and aren’t getting enough attention (especially when coupled with location data of animals and poaching incidents that we already collect). A lot of this data would also be available to donors, allowing them to see (and hear) exactly how the equipment they funded is being used and just how effective it is.