The Pandemic Poachers cross-border investigation was reported by 13 journalists from the InfoNile network in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan over one year. It contains original data analysis and field reporting tracking wildlife crime in 7 countries in East Africa before and after the pandemic. The project was produced in partnership with Code for Africa with funding from the Earth Journalism Network and JRS Biodiversity Foundation. The investigation, cross-published on media houses in East Africa, includes interactive maps, drone imagery, podcasts and videos to shed light on the impacts of Covid-19 on wildlife conservation in a critical region.
Pandemic Poachers was published widely with both an international and local reach, serving as a call to action to conserve nature in a time of crisis. The final digital project brings together 10 in-depth stories published by 11 major media houses in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan and internationally including online platforms, newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. The final digital project was also cross-published by three other media houses in the region.
The stories were reported by 9 East African journalists in the InfoNile network following a 5-week training by InfoNile in data journalism, solutions journalism and wildlife conservation reporting, conducted online during the lockdown. The journalists received individual mentorship, editing and data visualization support by InfoNile and Code for Africa. Some of the journalists also joined a follow-up 6-month data journalism training and mentorship program. According to before-and-after surveys, the journalists’ skills in Wildlife Reporting, Data Visualization, Solutions Journalism, and Data Journalism increased by 12%, 22%, 22% and 15% respectively.
Some journalists said their stories inspired their media houses to do more data and environmental journalism. Dorcas Wangira, of Citizen TV in Kenya, said “Not many people, even in the newsroom knew what pangolins were and didn’t see the value in telling this story. If I had not pitched this story to InfoNile, I wouldn’t have published it. Mentorship was extremely valuable. And having a focus group pursuing similar stories kept me going. This multimedia article is a first on our website – the data visualization helped add an aesthetic evidence-based quality. FAO added the story to their datalab, which shows the story has a global appeal. The engagement and dialogue we had from our audiences was very rich. I am now pursuing more stories on One Health, with more scientists reaching out after watching and reading my story.”
To produce the final investigation, we requested data from the Environmental Investigation Agency, which tracks wildlife crime from sources including Google searches, law enforcement agencies, court verdicts, intergovernmental agency reports, and other wildlife crime organizations. We received spreadsheets of all illegal wildlife seizures from 2010-2020 from 7 countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. We then analyzed the data quantitatively by country and year by the number of incidents, number of species, total reported weight of illegal wildlife products, number of arrests, and number of each transport method, and qualitatively by the nature of specific cases that occurred after the onset of Covid-19.
We also sourced local poaching data from governments in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, shapefiles on protected areas in East Africa, and statistics on the tourism industry in the three countries, which largely funds wildlife conservation and was heavily affected by Covid-19.
From this data, with support from Code for Africa, we produced 12 interactive data visualizations and two interactive maps using the online tool Flourish. Data visualizations included column charts and stacked column charts, area charts and stacked area charts, line and bar charts, grids of charts, a moving symbol map and a chloropleth map.
Our field reporting by 13 journalists in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan also used multimedia technologies. In the 10 local stories and the final project, we used podcasts, videos, animated data visualizations, drone video and images, mobile journalism, and illustrations.
The structure and design of the final online project was uniquely developed for this story using Elementor Pro, a WordPress website builder.
We also produced a mobile magazine summary of the project using Canva and Photoshop, designed and shared uniquely on Whatsapp.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The project was conducted during the first year of Covid-19, with the training and most of the reporting conducted during strict lockdowns, where movement was prohibited. The journalists had to find new ways to seek out their information when sometimes they could not even travel to the field. One of the journalists who reported a story on the Maasai communities in Kenya, which operate wildlife conservancies, sent questionnaires and conducted interviews via Whatsapp, working with a local source who also helped translate responses. She also relied on sharing information with environmental journalists at other media houses, which shows the value of collaboration to provide quality information in difficult times.
It was also difficult to source credible data, analyze large quantities of data, and draw conclusions from sometimes contradicting data. Data collection was also limited by lockdown restrictions. For example, data from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which mainly highlights large-scale international seizures, showed a 51 percent decrease in 2020 from 2019. However, government data, such as from Uganda, showed an increase in poaching during the lockdowns. Critically, we determined that although large-scale internationally trafficked seizures may have initially declined due to border closures and movement restrictions, the conditions that foster local poaching actually worsened during Covid-19. Analysis of the EIA data by the end of 2020 backed up this conclusion, showing that crime rates spiked again as countries reopened their economies.
Conducting cross-border reporting through collaborations with journalists from different media houses was also a challenge, as many journalists prefer to work alone. Additionally, it was sometimes difficult to interview communities that benefit from poaching, as they feared providing information would put them in danger. We mitigated this challenge by working with local journalists who speak local languages and have a greater trust with their communities of coverage.
What can others learn from this project?
Journalists can learn how to conduct data-driven reporting: sourcing for data and conducting analysis to determine trends over various periods of time, by learning from our comparison of 7 countries and analysis of wildlife trafficking trends across 11 years. Journalists can also learn how to integrate conclusions from data analysis alongside rigorous field reporting and information from scientists and experts. Thirdly, journalists can learn how to conduct cross-border and collaborative reporting to produce a bigger story with insights from reporters in multiple countries. An important part of collaborations is establishing partnerships between different media houses to cross-publish stories to reach a bigger audience. Also, translating and publishing stories in local languages is important to reach people who are affected by the issues presented.
Journalists can also learn how to merge solutions-based reporting with investigative and data-driven journalism. Although the project investigated concerning trends in how Covid-19 has affected wildlife conservation in East Africa, several of the stories in the project were solutions based, highlighting local models that have proven beneficial to conserving wildlife. Before Covid-19, the East African region was celebrating declines in wildlife trafficking. The solutions we highlighted included a story on the Ajai wildlife reserve in northern Uganda, which has seen increases in wildlife populations after the local communities signed MoUs to conserve wildlife while benefiting from beekeeping and agroforestry activities within the reserve. Another story looked at how the Giraffe Center in Nairobi has helped save an endangered species. Merging such solutions stories with critical analysis on the concerning impacts of the pandemic provides in-depth information on working models, as well as what is now needed in order to protect gains in wildlife conservation during this unique crisis.