Aeroplanes Over Africa: The Use of GEOINT in Anti-Poaching Operations

Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) can be somewhat difficult to describe as the discipline has evolved significantly throughout time.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Department of Defense agency that primarily creates and analyzes GEOINT information, defines the discipline as “the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically reference activities on the Earth”. This involves taking aerial photographs (from satellites, drones, and airplanes) and examining the natural and man-made objects that are caught on cameras in addition to examining images that go beyond the scope of photography, such as infrared imagery, multispectral imagery, and hyperspectral imagery. GEOINT has gone by many names, including IMINT (Imagery) and PHOTINT (Photograph). Again, like with Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), while the discipline seemingly is newer, it is steeped in history.

One of the first uses of tactical aerial/GEOINT intelligence was at the First Battle of Bull Run of the U.S. Civil War in which the U.S. Army contracted a Professor who, “used flag signals to direct gunners to fire at unseen targets” in addition to scouting troop movements and mapping battle lines via hot air balloons, “[foreshadowing] today’s overhead reconnaissance from spy planes and satellites”. When World War One broke out, the British, French, German, Italian, and Bulgarian air forces had already begun experimenting with aerial photography and reconnaissance during previous engagements and were adept at performing combat reconnaissance missions. Since the continued advancement of manned and unmanned aircraft and satellites with the capabilities to take incredibly detailed photographs from high above the surface of the globe, GEOINT has become an increasingly valuable tool for determining an adversary’s capabilities or enemy troop movements.

There is one area in which GEOINT has become quite useful which some have not considered or is not of the foremost concern to many practitioners; African poaching.

While poaching is a serious problem the globe over, Africa deals with the illegal activity on a far greater scale than any other continent. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, some 35,000 African Elephants are killed a year while the Black Rhino population has decreased by almost 98% since 1960 and the total Lion population decreasing by 43% since the year 2000. Most of these animals too are being hunted for their horn, meat, or scales, items that either fetch a high price on the black market or are seen as holding magical healing properties. Some terrorist organizations, like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), have also engaged in the illicit trade in order to finance their terroristic operations.

In response to this very serious ecological, criminal, and counterterrorism problem, many governments and international organizations have sought to stop poaching or deter the smuggling efforts by criminal organizations, utilizing a wide variety of tactics to halt this activity. In addition to more physical methods of deterrence and tracking, GEOINT has become a very effective technique.

Speaking at a 2015 conference focusing on “GEOINT Wildlife Security and Illicit Trafficking” Terry Ford, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) National Intelligence Manager for Africa claimed “GEOINT, in particular, is best postured of all of our intelligence disciplines to support wildlife security and defeat illicit traffic…[it] is probably the most naturally transferrable intelligence discipline and thus the easiest to share with people on the ground who are working this issue”. Angela Anderson, a graduate student at Mercyhurst University, wrote in her Master’s thesis, “[actionable GEOINT] With the aid of ArcGIS and Google Earth, a free tool and especially useful for many anti-poaching units with limited funds, GEOINT becomes highly effective…By using a combination of IMINT, GEOINT, and other intelligence methods, rangers can almost certainly concentrate resources more efficiently and produce a more effective anti-poaching strategy”.

Since 2015, there have been many advancements made and advantages taken to combat poaching with GEOINT.

In 2017, the Garamba National Park within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) partnered with National Geographic Labs and Esri, a private geospatial information system (GIS) company, to better defend against poachers by analyzing and monitoring the “movement of 50 elephants that have telemetric collars…seasonal movements of pastoralists in the region” and the changing patterns of wildlife and where trails expand.

The conservation NGO African Parks, of which Garamba is a member, have also been increasing “aerial surveillance, with remote sensing providing regular visual updates of who and what is on the ground” in addition to working with a state’s military force and coordinating ground and intelligence operations to combat poaching. The U.S. Intelligence Community, State Department, and individual federal officials and politicians have also become increasingly active in combating poaching on the basis of counterterrorism in recent years.

While GEOINT is quite effective in halting poaching and beneficial in a variety of other instances, there are still many problems inherent with the discipline.

On the whole, veteran CIA analyst and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Mark Lowenthal writes, “The graphic quality that is an advantage can be a disadvantage. An image can be too compelling leading to hasty or ill-informed decisions or to the exclusions of other, more subtle intelligence that is contradictory”. He notes that airborne and satellite imagery will be a picture of what is occurring of that location and time only in addition and that the interpretation of intelligence gleaned through these methods requires persons who are trained in understanding such material as it would be extremely easy to mistake one item in a picture for another. 

There are other problems which include the expense of geospatial intelligence as it requires satellites to be tasked over a certain area, planes or drones to be flying and utilizing fuel for long periods of time as well as how manufacturing fake missiles, armor, or other infantry units is a tactic that must be considered when examining intelligence gained from such areas (provided the enemy has a record of performing such actions).

Geospatial Intelligence is a discipline that is very technical and highly advanced, yet relies upon human interpretation and understanding, resulting in human error being one of the primary reasons for the discipline’s misuse or disadvantages. With anti-poaching operations, GEOINT easily is one of the best defenses against these illegal activities. However, it is only as effective when used in tandem with other disciplines like Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and Measurement and Signal Intelligence (MASINT). Like all other disciplines, they require educated and knowledgeable personnel capable of understanding their own missteps and perceptions in order to adeptly use the discipline for national security or commercial purposes.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.