Author Archives: Richard Grant

The Rise of Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea has become the world’s latest hotspot for piracy attacks. Just a few years ago the most dangerous waters in the world were off the coast of Somalia, but now the waters off the coast of Nigeria have become more dangerous. According to the International Maritime Bureau (2014), the Gulf of Guinea registers at least one attack every week, accounting for 19% of (reported) attacks worldwide. Analysts believe that number of attacks is much higher as some targets are regional smugglers, who, for obvious reasons, do not report attacks. Click on the map to view live piracy attacks in the region:

According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy group, the total economic cost of West African Piracy in 2013 was in excess of a half billion US dollars, and it also involved the kidnap of 73 seafarers for ransom (Ocean Beyond Piracy Organization 2014:54). Over the last few years, Gulf of Guinea piracy has escalated to become a regional problem: recent incidents have stretched all the way from Côte d’Ivoire to Angola. However, most experts contend that the root of the problem resides within Nigeria.

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The strategic importance of West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea —the stretch of coastline from Liberia to Gabon that encompasses the coastline of 9 countries—is high. Twenty percent of the United States’ oil imports, and 12% of Europe’s oil comes from the region. Indeed, 70% of Africa’s oil is derived from the Gulf of Guinea and recent discoveries indicate that the value will rise. As the primary access route to and from major oil producers such as Nigeria and Angola, it is a vital for international shipping. In and around Lagos (Nigeria), dense tanker traffic swarms the coast.

The nature of piracy is quite different in West Africa compared to East Africa, and it is unrelated. Most significantly, attacks off West Africa occur in both territorial waters (those extending 12 nautical miles (nm) (22.2 kms) from the coast) and international waters (those waters beyond the 12 nm territorial zone). Only local forces can legally provide armed security within territorial waters, and thus attacks are defined as “armed robbery at sea”. The majority of incidents in 2013 occurred within territorial waters, therefore these incidents fall within a specific country’s jurisdiction and protection. Dealing with them is the responsibility of littoral states, not foreign navies whereas in the case of the “failed state” of Somalia, United Nations’ resolutions authorized use of force on land as well as in the country’s waters.

A second different dimension is that the West African region has distinct sea traffic patterns. The Gulf of Guinea contains numerous ports actively involved in both international and regional maritime trade so that vessels not only transit through the region, but also enter ports to load and unload cargo. Thus, to date West Africa pirates have targeted vessels close to the port or anchorage areas. In contrast, Somali pirates tend to prey on ships transiting through the region. As a consequence, the opportunity for vessels to increase speed so as to avoid attacks, highly effective in curbing East African piracy, is not available to more stationary vessels.

Third, the nature of attacks is very different. Oil theft (also other cargoes and sometimes ship theft) is the modus operandi of West African pirate syndicates. Around the Horn of Africa, seizing ships and crews for ransom as well as venturing deeper into the ocean is more typical. Although kidnap for ransom occurs off the coast of Nigeria, seafarers from OECD countries remain the prime targets (for insurance pay outs). Gulf of Guinea oil theft is complicated and it entails sophisticated coordination. Syndicate gangs appear to have solid intelligence and extensive networks; their recruitment of personnel to operate equipment is noteworthy. Typically once the vessel is taken over, the crew is forced to navigate to a new location where the cargo is siphoned to another vessel or to a storage facility on land. According to the Joint War Committee, comprising underwriting representatives from Lloyd’s of London, US$2-6 million worth of oil is pilfered per pirate attack in the Gulf of Guinea. Stolen refined oil is channeled onto the black market.

Fourth, the human costs of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are immense. The level and rate of violence in West African attacks is high and so is the potential for longer-term physical and mental harm. The focus on cargo theft means that there is less financial incentive to keep seafarers safe (versus those who procure kidnapping for ransom). Piracy has devastated the local fishing industry. According to the Nigerian Trawler Association, 100,000 jobs have been lost in recent years (Nigeria now imports 80% of its fish) (Listen To the BBC’s 2014 podcast Chasing West Africa’s Pirates: Moreover, piracy has become deeply enmeshed with criminal and illegal networks and instability in the Nigerian Delta and other regions.

Fifth, the weak state of Nigeria encourages more sophisticated attacks, and it also provides the markets and communications and transport infrastructure necessary for operations where ships and cargoes can be sold for profit. On balance, weak states may turn out to be more problematic for international security than failed states such as Somalia. The combination of Boko Haram in the North and pirates in South are proving to be a lethal combination that is undermining the international reputation of Nigeria and in affecting the lives of ordinary Nigerians.

Geospatial Technologies and Elephant Conservation in Africa: Networking Nature and Elephants Joining Twitter

Real-time monitoring of environmental data is becoming increasingly common, largely due to the expansion of communications networks and improvements in wireless technologies. A recent paper by lead author, Jake Wall, a geographer at UBC, reviews preliminary evidence based on monitoring 94 African elephants in ecosystems in Kenya (Chyulu-Hilla, Laikipia, Mara, Mt. Kenya and Samburu) and South Africa (Kruger-Limpopo). et al.’s paper is the latest in an emerging research stream that utilizes geospatial technologies to assist in conservation efforts. Much of this research has emanated under the auspices of Save the Elephants Foundation ( and its research partners.

Save the

Mostly African elephants make the news for poaching (as elephants are killed to harvest ivory that is exported to Asian markets) and declining populations (the South Africa elephant population is a notable exception). According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the total number of elephants poached in Africa has declined from its peak in 2011, but over 20,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2013 so that the large mammal continues to face an immediate threat to its survival. Current rates of killing exceed elephant natural population growth rates. Moreover, elephant populations in countries with civil unrest and sporadic fighting remain doubly threatened, and in these locations their numbers are experiencing a very rapid rate of decline.

Southern Africa holds more than half of known African elephants. Eastern Africa accounts for 28% of the elephant population, while Central Africa holds approximately 16%. West Africa’s share is less than 2% and in this region elephant ranges are spread thinly within 13 countries (See Map).


UNEP (2013).

In particular research sites, elephants are being outfitted with different types of tracking collars that connect to mobile networks to determine which collar prototype functions best. Working in sync, GPS and satellite communications are deployed to study the movements of particular African elephants. The Lewa Wildlife Conservatory in Northern Kenya was an early adapter in outfitting elephants with tracking collars that connected to the Safaricom mobile network, a major service provider in East Africa. Refinements of this technology since its introduction now permit researchers to link data generated by tracking collars to a near real-time location (within 5 minutes) so that the position and movement trajectory of an animal can be viewed within a geographic information system (GIS), thereby shedding light on the precise movement of elephants and herds.

Spatial data generated can provide novel opportunities for wildlife conservation and research. (1) Desktop or mobile software programs (e.g., Google Earth) are becoming important tools in monitoring wildlife in the absence of continued field observations. (2) Algorithms are being tested to detect abnormal patterns, trigger alarm systems so that local conservationists with portable internet-linked devices can be deployed on the scene. For example, when an elephant stops moving for a given period of time (usually 5-hours plus — as elephants typically remain stationary to rest and/or to sleep for intervals > 4 hours), an alert (SMS or email) can be sent to rangers to check on the animal immobility and to investigate if poaching has taken place and/or if the animal has become ill and requires veterinary assistance. (3) Proximity algorithms are being tested to monitor the spatial field of an elephant in relation to other key spatial markers (e.g., highways, fishing nets, hunting game reserves), thereby avoiding accidents and human confrontation. (4) Spatial data is being studied to identify the best corridors for elephant movements within a mosaic of towns, villages and agricultural lands that has become the reality of contemporary twenty-first century rural Africa. (5) Special attention is being directed to so-called “problem elephants,” herd members with a track record in raiding. (6) Geofencing is being tested so that if “a problematic elephant” approaches a farm or a village, its collar sends a text to wildlife rangers who can quickly determine the precise location of the animal, intervene in a timely manner, and divert the animal, thereby avoiding damage and potentially fatal confrontation between threatened specie and humans. Jon Hoekstra, Chief Scientist at World Wildlife Fund, notes in his Foreign Affairs 2014 article “true to their reputation for intelligence, elephants quickly learn to mind such virtual fences and keep clear of farms.” Finally, (7) collars can also be outfitted with sensors that can record bio-spatial data (skin temperature, heart rates, etc.) that enable researchers to explore relationships between spatial movement and the physiological state of the animal.

Real-time monitoring of elephants is constrained by cost, network coverage (when the elephants move out of coverage area, movement data is stored on their collar and feed onto the server when elephants roam back into range), small sample size, spatial sampling limited to Southern and East Africa and by the durability of the devices (the collars are given rough treatment by their animal hosts).

To increase public knowledge about digital technologies and their application for conservation, Space for Giants, (, a UK-Kenyan conservation organization, placed tracking collars on four elephants in Laikipia, an area in northwest central Kenya, identified each elephants by name (Kimani, Carlos, Tyson and Evgeny) and by personality. Since January 2014 the spatial fields of the four elephants have been posted on twitter #ElephantsLive. Regular updates about the elephants are shared such as weekly roaming maps (See Map).

weekly movement of Carlos the elephant

#ElephantsLive (2014).

The initial tracking device costs US$5,000 but the World Wildlife Fund has participated in the development of low-cost GPS tacking devise that can be manufactured for US$300. Of course, such technology only works when locations are connected to the communications grid. To operate properly, digitally informed conservation is going to need a significant geographical expansion of telecommunications networks. The development of more affordable satellite uplinks and microcell towers and other breakthrough ways of delivering the Internet (e.g., by BRCKs ( — affordable devices that can be used to plug coverage holes in communities outside the grid), by drones and/or balloons sent into space are promising research frontiers that aim to deliver the Internet to rural Africa. With technology moving more into the spaces of rural Africa, networking nature can help preserve elephants in their natural habitats as well as help build a more sustainable future.

Mapping Ebola 2014

There are many important efforts at mapping the Ebola virus.  WHO, CDC, Harvard University’s HealthMap, ESRI and citizen efforts organized by the American Red Cross are among the most comprehensive mapping efforts supporting efforts to understand and stem the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

The WHO’s 2014 map on the geographic spread of the Ebola virus in human and animals is a fascinating overview map that details all known outbreaks as well as the known range of fruit bats. Based on current thinking about the reservoir population, the map of the distribution of fruit bats is important in understanding the outbreaks in human and animal populations. Continue reading

The Geographical Spread of Ebola 2014

(also check out Mapping Ebola 2014)

The Ebola outbreak of 2014 is the worst on record. The current outbreak has sent shock waves throughout the international system. There are heightened irrational fears and anxieties about the Ebola spreading to every other corner of the globe. Just like the early days of HIV/AIDs, a virus-hysteric global populace, and a sub-group within this populace that is Africa-phobic, are doing untold damage to the region by recovering the old colonial era representation of “Africans and disease.” Ebola misinformation is all too apparent on social media, e.g. twitter, without much realistic assessment of the geographical spread of Ebola in order to determine the past as well as the potential future geography of the disease.

Unfounded fears about the virus have also been common on the ground in local communities where the outbreaks have occurred.  Rural communities in West Africa distrust of government information and unrealistic expectations of international public health officials sent into their communities has not helped contain the spread of the virus. Rumors of the virus being a hoax are commonplace. Local resistance to acknowledging Ebola and medical staff shortages are producing a lethal situation. Because there is no known cure many families opted to keep Ebola-inflected relatives at home. Large “shadow zones” in rural areas have emerged where Ebola contagion proceeds. In urban areas, combinations of disbelief and anxiety among city inhabitants challenge the establishment of quarantine and isolation centers in my backyard (NIMBY). Controversially West Point, a large slum community (the estimated population is 70,000) in Monrovia, Liberia has been sealed off and quarantined in a government effort to isolate cases among the poor and contain the virus. Continue reading