Electric motorcycles to fight poaching in Africa
Illegal poaching likely claimed the lives of at least 394 rhinos in 2020, a number that is set to increase this year. It is also believed that the illegal animal trade kills tens of thousands of elephants each year and has left the Grévy’s zebra—An endangered species — with fewer than 3,000 adults worldwide. Today, to help tackle the conservation crisis, African anti-poachers have found an unlikely ally: a Swedish e-bike company.
The company, Cake, has launched a pilot program to send its electric off-road motorcycles to Africa for anti-poaching patrol officers, who rely on the motorcycles to patrol and stop illegal hunters. But while motorcycles are great for getting around the wild areas that rangers must protect, they have major drawbacks: they are expensive to operate, contribute to pollution and, perhaps most importantly, their noisy engines make it difficult for rangers. to stealthily patrol the desert. To the extent that it helps meet conservation goals, the pilot program also allows the bicycle company to learn how their vehicles operate under difficult conditions, so that they can be upgraded.
Cake first teamed up with the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC), a conservation training institution based near Kruger National Park in South Africa, in January 2021. The college trained 10,000 rangers in 127 parks in 56 countries around the world, protecting a million acres of land, helping to conserve lions, cheetahs, elephants and other wild animals. In order to make its conservation efforts more effective and meaningful, the SAWC often adopts new technologies and tests them in real life scenarios.
To find and stop illegal poachers, rangers usually use motorcycles because they are fast and agile. But combustion-engine bikes are noisy, and poachers can hear rangers approaching for up to 45 minutes. The noise factor was especially true for Cake founder Stefan Ytterborn, who admits that before starting his business in 2016, “motorcycles really annoyed me” because of their noise. When he started playing with the relatively quieter e-bikes, other novice riders were more inclined to get involved, “no roaring noise frightening them,” he says.
Since then, Cake has designed three main models of bikes: an urban commuter bike, a bike designed for hauling small loads over short distances, and an off-roader. They tweaked this backcountry model to be ‘designed and tailored for Africa’, creating the Kalk AP (which means “anti-poaching”). It’s almost completely silent when moving slowly, unlike a traditional off-roader, which has a similar decibel level to a lawn mower. The Kalk AP is also designed specifically for the hot, dry, dusty and muddy conditions of the African bush, with 18-inch off-road tires, modified suspension for low maintenance and improved durability – and is capable of achieving speeds over 45 miles per hour.
Combustion engine bikes run on gasoline, which can be difficult and expensive to access in isolated parts of national parks, often requiring delivery by trucks or helicopters. Combined, these methods cause emissions and pollution, which are also dangerous for nearby animals. Cake bikes are solar powered and use charging stations, so their batteries can be charged anywhere in the bush.
Cake started a ‘charity group’ buy-a-give-one initiative, where generous customers would pay for two bikes, costing $ 25,000, and one would go to Wildlife College (with a charging station) to be used by the rangers. To increase the supply, Cake is now approaching organizations to donate more bikes “so that they can continue to support the offering as long as it is relevant to them,” says Ytterborn.
It’s still a long learning process for the College, which has asked more rangers to test the bikes during the pilot, which is expected to last around 24 months, according to Ytterborn. Lately, the SAWC reported that “a handful of poaching attempts have been stopped”, thanks to bicycles, especially from different antelopes, including the Suni, Red Duiker and Blue Duiker species. But Ytterborn says they have also reported battery clogging due to dust and mud, which the company will work to improve.
These rigorous tests in harsh environments also help Cake improve bikes in the long run, even for different purposes and locations. “There is a real connection between everything we do,” says Ytterborn, “although it may seem far-fetched that Africa has something to do. [with] how transport will actually develop in London or Stockholm.