Tech & the Cheetah

Photographing the photographer:  A young Samburu girl takes pictures with her cellphone to share with friends on Facebook.  Outside Kisima, Samburu County, Kenya.
Photographing the photographer: A young Samburu girl takes pictures with her cellphone to share with friends on Facebook. Outside Kisima, Samburu County, Kenya.

Some regions of Kenya have better cell phone reception than the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.  This is no exaggeration.  One can easily make a call or text from the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  It’s changed the country’s economy, society in both rural and urban areas, and launched millions of voices onto Twitter and Facebook.

map courtesy of Wikipedia
map courtesy of Wikipedia

Naturally, NGOs are working to figure out solutions to leverage this love of cellphones for the benefit of wildlife.  The technology is already in the hands of millions.  The issue is finding out where the need is, and how a rural community can benefit from the sharing of information.

I sat down with Dr. Jimmy Macharia, Dean of the School of Science and Tech at Nairobi’s US International University, to discuss the possibilities.  “Users must see the value beyond the cost, first we must address their primary needs”.  Those needs do not include the cheetah as top-of-mind, but rather issues of security, safe and accessible drinking water, education and poaching.  Dr. Macharia suggested creating “software for conservation” where students earning their Masters in IT would create programs for targeted geo-messaging that would reach thousands who have just the simplest of SMS (short message service, i.e. text message) technology.  “We must involve and invoke the people to share”.

A young Samburu boy photographs his friends at a Lmuget Ceremony outside Kisima, Samburu County, Kenya.
A young Samburu boy photographs his friends at a Lmuget Ceremony outside Kisima, Samburu County, Kenya.

Purchasing text/ airtime is a challenge for people surviving on little means and asking them to use up those precious minutes might be a stretch.  Companies like Echo Mobile are partnering with NRT & the Nature Conservancy to conduct surveys via SMS.

Some NGOs have programs in place that focus on information and survey-gathering from the safari-side like Lion Watch that rely on smart-phones to record lion sightings.  Paul Thompson of Ewaso Lions says they hope to expand to a ‘citizen-science project’ when advanced tech is readily available.

Lion Watch may not have to wait long for those smart-phones if Californian entrepreneur Amy Tucker has her way.  Her ambitious plan for providing smart-phones to those in need launches in 2014.  “No, you cannot feed your family a cell phone.  But you can access the current market price for tomatoes to get a better price, or locate the closest water source, or learn to read and write, or take and post pictures of poachers.  BetterWorld Wireless will be the world’s first 100% mission-led, mainstream wireless service provider.  With a service and customers based in the United States, BWW aims to create an engine for change that will put 1 million smartphones in the hands of those who need them most: mothers, teachers, and farmers; in places of need. “

Chairlady of Nakuprat-Gotu Conservancy, Josephine Ekiru, checks her cellphone during a cultural tour of a Turkana village in Buffalo Springs, Samburu County, Kenya.
Chairlady of Nakuprat-Gotu Conservancy, Josephine Ekiru, checks her cellphone during a cultural tour of a Turkana village in Buffalo Springs, Samburu County, Kenya.

According to National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of, Ken Banks, “Conservation and development projects based on straight-forward technology transfer are always contentious. Taking something which may well work in places like the US or Europe and dumping it in rural Kenya or downtown Kampala, Uganda, is, in most cases, asking for trouble. We need to ensure that we build tools that work in the environments where the problems exist, and not get caught up in the excitement, buzz and hype of the latest, smartest technology”.

Given Kenya’s enthusiasm for telecommunications, conservation’s merge with tech is just a matter of time.

All photos & text: Marcy Mendelson © 2013 /


  1. Geoff
    January 15, 2014, 2:07 pm

    Tim – I’m involved in conservation work, research and environmental education. I’ve also researched the organizations that I quoted and the information that I provided. Much of what you listed were exceptions, irrelevant to anything I was discussing or were inaccurate. The author asked that I not go off topic anymore – so I won’t respond after this.

  2. Tim Neary
    South Africa
    January 14, 2014, 1:35 pm

    At the outset Geoff I am keen on animals in captivity, however I am actively involved in conservation, media and have good knowledge of the industry. I am not sure of your credentials but from your writing, and if I am wrong I apologize, but given that the organisations you refer to are not primary conservation organisations I would believe that you are from an activist background. Again there are a few points that you may wish to review. Yes many Arab states have cats and in particular cheetah. The reputable ones have animals that are 8th or more generation captive bred animals and they have a group of vet and nutritional experts that consult around the world and these cats are most likely in a better condition than many of your top facilities such as your Miami Metro Zoo. I would also correct you on the fact that the amimals are managed through Pazaab and their 1st world equivalents to reduce the occasion of inbreeding. Interestingly here that man has more of a concern as regards inbreeding than the animals do. This point you will know well if you are a researcher working with free range wild creatures. They mate through opportunity and certainly lions, cheetah, wild dogs etc have very low moral standards as regards mating with a daughter, son, or sibling. Again you may wish to research some of the organisations you quote as well as others and you may wish to research the nutritional deficiencies that they have had and in particular with animals they have “saved” from facilities that were less than perfect, effectively they may as well of euthanized the animals when first removed as it would of been less traumatic. Yes there are unscrupulous animal traders and “rehabilitation centers” and yes the world is not perfect. I trust that you have taken a cheetah ambassador to a rural village who capture cheetah with GIN TRAPS and dogs and then worked with the kids to explain what the animal does in the wild and why they should be protected,…….. the world is not perfect and we in true conservation work with very little and we have a huge amount to do and achieve, read all the wrongs that are done, often by people who do not support our funding, reintroduction programs and research into rabies and other diseases. On this point are you sir, aware that the wild dogs were wiped out to a dog in central africa by an NGO using the wrong vaccine and that the issue was solved using the captive dogs at the then De Wildt Cheetah Cemntre, now the Ann van Dyk Centre and are you aware sir that captive vultures, placed there by man’s poisoning and collision with powerlines etc……birds that could not be released……. have provided hands off reared chicks for reintroduction and colony boosting programs and were instrumental in resolving the Asian vulture crisis that saw the birds virtually made extinct through the usuage of voltaren in cattle……. an no, captive hunting and petting zoos are not on…….and maybe research your comment as regards all cats taken away from mothers at an early age to rebreed again…… cheetah as an example are only bred to order buy certain responsible breeding centres……..and just maybe ambassador animals have raised more responsible awareness than you have thought about

  3. Marcy Mendelson
    January 14, 2014, 1:14 pm

    I have reported and mentioned WildTrack in another article that is published on this site. As for Cat Haven, I am aware of the tragic incident that was ruled human error, the only incident in the history of the facility. I invite you to remain on topic.

  4. Geoff
    January 14, 2014, 12:47 pm

    Hi Marcy,

    I know I’m off-topic, this was the only way I could share my opinion. I appreciate you taking the time to read my comments. As for the article you linked in your comment, the organization that’s referenced is not GFAS accredited sanctuary and had an incident just this past March.

    In regards to this article, there are similar programs in South America and in India. Check out for some other great ways that technology can help improve community relations in get more local people involved in conservation.

  5. Marcy Mendelson
    January 14, 2014, 12:30 pm


    Again, I respect your comments and am reading them right now but please be aware that you are offtopic and not addressing the blog post itself, nor the topics of any of my articles. I invite you to read this article and say something about it here as well.

    Warm regards,


  6. Geoff
    January 14, 2014, 12:05 pm

    Hi Marcy,

    Thank you for the response. Thank you for being open to discussion and for thinking about the issue.

    My counterpoint to the ambassador animal issue is that the little educational value is often offset by several animal welfare issues. Education can be done without posing with animals. Think about the plight of whales and the issues that came up with whale hunting in the 60s and 70s. People learned about the issue and no one was posing with a whale with a collar. Education takes time and can be done by properly exploring the issues, portraying animals with the respect they deserve and strong policies. Now many whale species are on the way to recovery, the US has strict fishing regulations to reduce bycatch and other nations are catching up.

    On the other side of this, some people might not see the educational aspect or care to explore further. They see someone petting an animal, then they research how they can do the same – supporting private breeders. Maybe they decide to purchase their own, which has no conservation value and causes issues for the animal and for the private owners as well. Or other people or groups decide to start using ambassador animals, or illicit breeding practices such as “pay to pet” opportunities that try to capitalize on it by saying they’re doing education, but really are only interested in making a profit. It doesn’t work out for the animal once they can’t make money off of it. Kids or the public might miss the intended educational message but take away that it’s ok to own a wild cat or a wild animal and to treat it like property.

    Privately owned big cats, cheetahs in Arab states for example, are on the rise and oftentimes those animals are inbred, receive improper care (how many vets are able to provide reasonable medical knowledge?) and the animals are taken from mothers at a young age, while the mothers are forced to breed continuously.

    While others may have pictures taken with animals- maybe it’s time they change as well. Maybe you can speak with them and help improve their educational message. If you’d like, check out, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries ( or the International Fund for Animal Welfare ( for some other great resources. BornFree can be very political but their message is spot on and GFAS and IFAW do great work. You can also email me directly at horsge01 (at) gmail (dot) com

  7. Marcy Mendelson
    January 11, 2014, 4:24 pm

    Hello Geoff (and thank you, Darin),

    I’ve taken your comment into serious consideration because I’ve had this image up for a few years without anyone ever making a remark like yours.

    This week I consulted with friends in conservation, people who work in the field, and well-known directors of wildlife NGOs.

    The consensus was, leave the image up. “Why?” you may ask… here is why: because ambassador animals bring the message home to those who contribute to conservation. They educate the public about the plight of their wild cousins, and many directors of conservation can be seen in photographs like the one you are referring to; posing with ambassador cats.

    I refer you to my article on National Geographic from 2011:
    Cheetah Ambassador Enlightens People About Big Cat:

    Warm regards,


  8. Darin Layman
    Oakland, California
    January 10, 2014, 1:14 pm

    Actually, I love the picture of you with the cheetah. I don’t find it negative at all. In fact, I get the feeling you really do care about cheetahs and what happens to them in the wild. You and the cheetah are both ambassadors for conservation.

  9. Geoff
    January 10, 2014, 10:54 am

    Marcy – I’m disappointed by your picture and your negative portrayal of wildlife.

    True conservation should start with respect and respect can be shown in how we portray ourselves with wild animals. By having your picture taken next to a wild animal you instantly give the idea that that animal is not wild and undermines any conservation message you’re trying to get across. Please reconsider your values and think about the message you’re trying to convey.