climate-friendly tool to fight poaching in Africa

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Tracking ivory poachers in Africa takes skill, courage and lots of climate-unfriendly fuel, right? Perhaps not for much longer — a Swedish company has developed solar-powered motorbikes to tackle illegal wildlife crime and lessen the climate burden.

The electric ‘bush-bikes’ developed by Stockholm-based electric motorcycle company CAKE are due to be tested between June and August in South Africa. And because electric motorbikes are largely silent, they will allow rangers to move with much more stealth than on normal motorbikes, making them real game-changers.

The Kalk AP (the AP stands for anti-poaching) model is based on CAKE’s regular electric bikes, says Klara Edhag, a brand manager for the company. But there are crucial modifications.

These include thick off-road tyres, high mudguards made from recycled plastic and solar panels and a portable power station to charge the bike’s batteries. A number were done in consultation with staff from the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC).

The college is situated near South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park, which last year saw 245 white rhinos killed for their horns and 16 elephants poached for their ivory, according to official figures.

South Africa’s Kruger National Park suffered a spike in rhino poaching in late 2020.
South Africa’s Kruger National Park suffered a spike in rhino poaching in late 2020. © WikiCommons / flowcomm

Unforgiving terrain

“We had a discussion with the (SAWC) team to understand how we could build the best bike due to their circumstances and environment,” Edhag told RFI.

“We will have a weekly update from them (during the trials), both regarding the bikes and how the technique is working and of course also how they work in the field,” she added.

The kind of terrain the bikes will have to contend with in some parts of Africa will almost certainly be unforgiving: rough roads made impassable by heavy downpours or heavily rutted during the dry season.  

Under an initial offer, the company will put 50 motorbikes up for sale. A buyer will get two, one of which will be donated to the SAWC along with the solar panels and power unit developed by Goal Zero, a solar product firm that is a partner in this initiative.

The collaboration came about through CAKE founder and CEO, Stefan Ytterborn, and a friend of his with contacts at the SAWC. The college has trained more than 18,000 people from 56 countries around the world, many from Africa.  

Kalk Anti-poaching bikes, manufactured by Swedish electric motorcycle company CAKE, ready to be shipped to South Africa in 2021.
Kalk Anti-poaching bikes, manufactured by Swedish electric motorcycle company CAKE, ready to be shipped to South Africa in 2021. © CAKE

Element of surprise

Edhag said the company was honoured to be part of supporting anti-poaching efforts.

“This is the most incredible project we have done so far,” she said.

The silent motor and four-hour battery range will give rangers the element of surprise. Conventional petrol engines, in addition to gobbling up thousands of litres of fuel doing a year’s-worth of patrols, can be heard approaching from kilometres away and give poachers an early warning.

One disadvantage: the price. The electric bush-bikes, which have a top speed of 45 kilometres per hour, don’t come cheap: the dual set under the initial offer (one for the buyer and one for SAWC) will sell for just over 25,000 USD (20,550 euros).

CAKE hopes companies and organizations that support anti-poaching initiatives will purchase and donate its bikes for use in various national parks in the region, where wildlife departments have long been cash-strapped and where Covid-linked tourism losses won’t have helped them move further towards the green.

Dangerous animals 

Others in the wildlife sector are looking on with interest. Mark Brightman, conservation manager with the Bumi Hill Anti-Poaching Unit in northern Zimbabwe said motorised trail bikes were used effectively in the Zambezi Valley in the 1980s, when poaching of black rhinos was at its height.

“They were good to get into places where vehicles couldn’t go. They enable more ground to be covered than on foot too,” he told RFI. At the time bikes with four-stroke petrol engines were used as they were quieter than noisier two-stroke ones.

“This model being electric is ideal,” he said.

But he cautioned that anyone riding the bikes would need to be experienced in dealing with dangerous animals, especially lions and elephants.

“Elephants, especially cows, detest motorbikes and readily give chase. However, this may be a factor of the engine noise, which is an irritant.”