NAIROBI, Kenya — A decorated U.S. war veteran with two decades’ experience in military intelligence, Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas spent half her career providing intelligence support to U.S. counter-insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. Now she is using her expertise to fight a different kind of conflict: the war on wildlife poaching.
Calling herself “the accidental conservationist,” Cuevas, an air force officer and a trained lawyer originally from Le Center, Minnesota, is not your typical wildlife enthusiast. She is determined to use her skills, honed in conflicts all over the world, to help save the planet’s remaining wild elephants.
“If you start to really untangle how poaching happens — how poachers are armed, how they’re connected into larger networks and how those networks can move ivory and horn on a global scale, who protects them? Who provides logistics? — it resembles a war in anything but name,” Cuevas said.
In the U.S. Air Force, Cuevas worked on America’s controversial drone program, collecting intelligence on individuals and organizations identified as threats. “Getting left of boom” was the term used to predict and prevent the next bomb attack.
Cuevas can pinpoint the moment she realized that she wanted to fight poaching.
“The first time that I saw an elephant in the wild was in Amboseli National Park here in Kenya two years ago,” she said. “It was life-changing.”
“At the current rate of elephant decline, my 6-year-old daughter won’t have an opportunity to see an elephant in the wild before she’s old enough to vote,” she said. “Which just is unacceptable to me, because if that is the case then we have nothing to blame that on but human apathy and greed.”
She realized that she could use the “left of boom” concept to help wildlife rangers get “left of kill.”
Enter tenBoma — or “10 homesteads” — which uses technology to pull together diverse sources of information, from rangers to conservation groups. She analyzes the data to “create value in information in ways that it rises to the level of intelligence.”
Together with the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cuevas introduced a smartphone-based software app that allows rangers and field investigators to enter and share information immediately, rather than write it up in reports at the end of a day’s patrolling.
“The Kenya Wildlife Service and other many conservation groups are doing fantastic conservation work,” Cuevas said. “However, the reality is that there are other challenges — from a cyber perspective, from a global criminal network perspective — that really necessitate security approaches integrated into conservation strategies.”
The number of Africa’s savannah elephants had dropped to about 350,000 by 2014 because of poaching, according to a recent study.
Wildlife crime is worth $10 billion to $20 billion a year globally, according to Interpol. Kenya, a major source country for trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn, has strongly supported a total ban on both for decades. The government’s Kenya Wildlife Service is working closely with Cuevas.
“There’s excitement in the team because we’ve seen the results” of Cuevas’ work, said David Karanja, senior warden in the wildlife service’s intelligence department.
TenBoma is currently being tested in the Tsavo Conservation Area, which covers over 42,000 sq. kilometers (16,200 sq. miles) encompassing two of Kenya’s biggest national parks.
The huge, unfenced area is notoriously difficult to patrol, but it has seen a decline in elephant poaching in recent years. The proportion of elephants in the Tsavo area that died from poaching dropped by 11 percent in 2016, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. That is largely due to long-running efforts by non-profit groups working with the Kenya Wildlife Service in the area.
Supporters of tenBoma hope the app will improve that trend even more. There are plans to expand the concept into other conservation areas — perhaps even to other continents.
After a year of running tenBoma from Washington, Cuevas has moved her family to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to be closer to her work – and to her goal of defeating wildlife crime networks.