Open-source vs. poachers:
locating the elusive pangolin in Kenya



The sense of purpose like never before

The euphoria of being right where I belong! For the first time, my engineering skills are used for something meaningful. Something that can actually save a life and not just add another zero to my bank account.

I’m right here in the heart of Kenya, merging tech with conservation to protect the mysterious pangolin. And who knew my passion for rock climbing would be more than a hobby? It’s an essential skill in our mission – not just another climb, it’s a climb for a cause.

When Pangolins curl up, they look like dragon eggs.
When Pangolins curl up, they look like dragon eggs.
The most trafficked animal in the world is incredibly sensitive; they die if kept in captivity for too long
The most trafficked animal in the world is incredibly sensitive; they die if kept in captivity for too long

The Pangolin Project

Alasdair – the Arribada captain, links us up with Claire from the Pangolin Project. I don’t need a lot of convincing – an exotic destination and a noble initiative. That is all I need! Africa, here I come!

Few calls later I know what the goals are:

  • Monitor their activity to ensure the population is viable and healthy. In other words, they need more data.
  • To reduce poaching activity. Killed by foreign “sponsors” for Chinese medicine and luxury food.
  • Scale up the project’s effectiveness and data collection while reducing the manual workload.
  • More community awareness. – we can’t help here, but the team is already doing a great job in the area.

Their Current System needs an upgrade

  • Manual tracking – they use a radio beeper, which increases in intensity as it gets closer to the source, meaning walking around with an antenna to pick up the signal
  • Limited range – 2-3km
  • No historical data – only a current position

The new goals are:

  • Live Monitoring and a centralized database
  • Historical data to visualize their movement path over time.
  • Remote access and configuration.

Time to research and develop

I am excited. If all goes well, it will lead to my very first African adventure.
The Action Plan! Reuse existing open-source technology — we love open-source – it saves time and money.

After all, sharing is caring!

Will use the existing GPS tracker made for the Fauna and flora project in Guinea and combine it with the same software used in the Spot project in Cyprus(Chirpstack for collecting the data and Traccar to visualize it).

Few tweaks here and there and it is ready for the trials. Claire mentioned that a 10km range is okay and I know from Cyprus that with enough elevation, it can do way more so we are good to go.

I hadn’t left Sofia yet, so all of this just kept on amping my eagerness.

A year later. Here I come Africa

My golden ticket (vaccination certification) was issued!
My golden ticket (vaccination certification) was issued!

After the unexpected COVID delay, I am on the plane to Africa. First stop – Nairobi.
The installation spot is on a hill, off the grid, so we’re betting on the sun for power.
Taking a solar system with me is a no-go – too big and heavy. Luckily Kenya has plenty of sun, so they are popular here and easy to buy.


Claire is kind enough to let me stay at her house while Beryl (her assistant) and I are busy sourcing the solar system.

This is where my first African adventure begins!
“Make sure you close the back door -” Claire said, “don’t let the monkeys raid the kitchen.”, Monkeys? Back in Bulgaria, it is just me versus the mosquitos.… here’s the real wildlife. Loving it!

Two days later we have everything. Looks messy, but it works so time to move on.
Two days later we have everything. Looks messy, but it works so time to move on.

Sala’s Camp: Solar-Powered Savana Luxury

On my 5-hour trip to the camp I entered – the Simba obsession. Hotels, shops, construction firms. Just about everything is named Simba. It seems odd, but who am I to judge? It must be a historic tribute.

Traditional baked corn while waiting in the traffic
Traditional baked corn while waiting in the traffic
Simba is everywhere,  Swahili for Lion!
Simba is everywhere, Swahili for Lion!

Less than two km from the border with Tanzania. The camp is nestled along the banks of the famous Sand River.
Less than two km from the border with Tanzania. The camp is nestled along the banks of the famous Sand River.

After the long and bumpy road, it doesn’t take long to get settled. The tent: a perfect blend of wild and homey. Is it strong enough though? Every roar at night feels closer and closer and has me questioning it. Locals say animals mistake them for rocks so they don’t even try. Fingers crossed!

Switching from Europe’s safety playbook to safari mode took a few days – peek first, then exit! Watching everyone jumping at snakes made me laugh until I found out these can easily kill an elephant. I join the high jumping contest! Respect to the fearless suricates keeping our camp almost snake-free. Their tactics remain a mystery. The sound of suricates on the tent roof is either the all-clear signal or a snake alert!

perfect balance for the feel of nature with just enough comfort
perfect balance for the feel of nature with just enough comfort
the hat - my first and only purchase from Nairobi's tourist treasures
the hat – my first and only purchase from Nairobi’s tourist treasures
YouTube video

First patrol with a surprising meet and greet

Bags unpacked and I am ready for some action. Time for our first patrol and to meet the rest of the team.

Job our driver and lookout
Job our driver and lookout
Beryl the lead field analyst
Beryl the lead field analyst
Ben, our stylish defender in the wild.
Ben, our stylish defender in the wild.

We inspect the camera traps by the favoured burrows( who would know Pangolins have favourites). And there it is in the very first burrow, a pangolin! What a pleasant surprise to see this dragon-like creature on my arrival. Can’t think of a better welcome present. People come and go years without seeing one and here I am looking at it just hours after I enter this wilderness.

The most impressive thing about these animals is not how they look, but how timid they are and how unusual their behaviour is. They die if kept locked in a cage for too long.

In addition to camera traps, they also use radio trackers. Aim the antenna and follow the increasing beeps to get closer.

Quite simple and it works but very limited range – 2/3kms and it needs a direct line of sight – hoping on luck to catch it outside the barrow.

YouTube video
Can't miss the chance to look like a real conservationist
Can’t miss the chance to look like a real conservationist

Pros and Cons of the camera traps

  • The camera traps only highlighted when the pangolins left and returned to the burrow. No data for where and how far it went.
  • Hyenas often chewed on the cameras and destroyed them. Ouch, expensive!
    (my suggestion to spray the cameras with mosquito repellent: officially ineffective)
  • Poachers would look around for these cameras as a big sign that there could be a pangolin inside. The Law of Unintended Consequences….

No harness, no problem – it’s all part of the thrill!

This is not on a tourist vacation, we are here on a mission, so let’s do this thing! Time for the upgrade. Finally, my climbing skills come to good use. Quickly improvising with a self-made harness to climb the radio tower and install the antenna. The view from the top? Absolutely worth the impromptu climb – a 360-degree wildlife extravaganza. A panoramic spectacle of diverse wildlife families everywhere.

Sh**t  that looks high!
Sh**t that looks high!
The improvised youtube inspired harness.
The improvised youtube inspired harness.
Big thanks to Salas camp for letting us use their existing tower.
Big thanks to Salas camp for letting us use their existing tower.
The network connection was bad so few extra adjustments on the next day. Everyone is involved!
The network connection was bad so few extra adjustments on the next day. Everyone is involved!
With the project t-shirt I am officially part of the team!
With the project t-shirt I am officially part of the team!

Long live the sun and the solar systems!

Some excellent teamwork and 2 days later we have power.
Big thanks to the Sala’s Camp team for the tooling, helping hand and letting us use their tower. A teaching moment for the partnership of conservation and business.

Bigger wooden log, better earth connection
Bigger wooden log, better earth connection

From the comforts of the camp and out in wild

The system is ready. Time for traversing the savana with the jeep to test the range and meanwhile look for a pangolin to tag. The day ends with a big success! The system works at 12km, with only a few dead spots due to the uneven terrain. I am relieved!

When duty calls
When duty calls
The gps tag with some improvised attachment
The gps tag with some improvised attachment
analyzing the results - 12km range!
analyzing the results – 12km range!

The stealth pangolin search

Now we need a new pangolin to tag. Not an easy task as I find out in the next few days.
Mastering the Burrowscope becomes my new hobby while Job has a close call with a warthog jumping from one of those borrows. We even cross the Tanzanian border which is literally just a triangle rock, no Covid test required!
And oh, the Wildebeest migration! One of the “Seven Wonders of the Natural World”. These otherwise chaotic and not good-looking animals organise like a big army on a march to victory for this day. Spectacular! We end the day over drinks with rangers in a secret savanna camp(details classified), hoping for better luck tomorrow.

Everyone is trying really hard.
Everyone is trying really hard.
I learned how to use a Burrowscope. 
And another good lesson - burrows are also shared with warthogs!
I learned how to use a Burrowscope. And another good lesson – burrows are also shared with warthogs!
YouTube video
Another one for instagram
Another one for instagram
The very secure Tanzanian border.
The very secure Tanzanian border.
Wildebeest migration
Wildebeest migration
Didn't find one, so lets just enjoy the sunset
Didn’t find one, so lets just enjoy the sunset

Nighttime savanna walks: Spine-tingling thrills!


Pangolins are night folks so our searches often lead us into the night…. a bit spooky when you know about the wildlife that is watching us out here. Next time I am upgrading with night vision! They watch me I watch them. Fair game.


One night, jackpot! More of a déjà vu, it is already tagged, with a pint-sized pup in tow. We keep our distance to avoid extra stress – in their world, too much can be deadly.

When Pangolins curl up, they look like dragon eggs.
When Pangolins curl up, they look like dragon eggs.
The life is everywhere
The life is everywhere
Small ecosystems of different families every few meters
Small ecosystems of different families every few meters
I feel like a tourist.
I feel like a tourist.

Brainstorming sessions

In the meantime, we’re rethinking the tracker attachment method.
The current ‘bolt to scale’ solution is problematic. Their scales are made of keratin, so it’s painless, but hyenas and lions use it to try to break their armour. Some soft attachment with leather and a clamp could be a more stylish and safe solution—some promising ideas to try next time.

From left to right - the satellite tag (big, expensive and poor battery life), the current radio tag(low range), the new lora tag
From left to right – the satellite tag (big, expensive and poor battery life), the current radio tag(low range), the new lora tag

A litle bit about Sala’s camp

In the heart of the wilderness, the team could whip up a beautiful 3-course meal, while enjoying randomly crossing animals in the backyard.… Unbelievable but true! Truly unique!

Even the table here has a history – crafted from a dead tree that lounged in the woods for ages, spotted from high above by a visionary camp owner. Getting it here was problematic! After several failed attempts and upsizing the transport truck, they finally got it to camp. The next challenge? Building a huge saw to cut it in one piece. After a few months and a small army of man-hours, it took a crowd of 30 to muscle it into the lounge. Now, it’s not just any table it is the centrepiece for sharing stories over dinner. Dining on it adds that extra special flavour or savana romance!

Even the table here is so special that it has its own book.
Even the table here is so special that it has its own book.

In the wild with no fences

Remember I said – no fences? Well, I meant it literally! The camp is located in the middle of the Savana and doesn’t have any fences. Lions and buffalos are regulars.
Look at this one stealing a towel and another one playing it cool while crossing the river.

The movie set with Elenior

Just when I think I’ve seen it all this place surprises me again. Mikey(the salsa camp captain) invites me to join them to watch the sunset with Elenoir. Elenior is the CAR!
With a custom-made mobile bar made from the remains of the tree used for the table in the dining room. How special is this?

Mixing cocktails with Caren(head chef) and preparing to watch the sunset.
Mixing cocktails with Caren(head chef) and preparing to watch the sunset.


Some more friends join us later. Cheering and jumping with the local Masai. Not sure why but the dance is just jumping, the higher the jump the higher the applaud. My guess – a fun way to sprint from a lion in style.

YouTube video

Just like that it is time to leave

The remaining days we spend every day from early morning to late night looking for a new pangolin to tag, but the elusive pangolin remains just that – elusive, leaving the story open-ended. I hate stories without closer, but this is one of them. Life, unlike a scripted movie, doesn’t always offer a happy ending. My departure is bittersweet: pleased with our efforts, yet that nagging feeling of unfinished work. I think my lesson here is that when doing something you enjoy and makes you feel fulfilled should ignore the outcome and focus on the journey, not the destination This is bullsh*t and I hate it. I want results, but hey I am learning to appreciate the moments as they come and not as I wish they were.

A journey filled with memorable NatGeo scenes so here’s to a hopeful ‘to be continued’.

Clearly, my hat prefers you, Job. It’s all yours. A memento of our adventure together.

The Incredible Team

While working in Kenya I was surprised to see how this incredible group of people, businesses, and organizations are collaborating for some shared mission. Sure, they’re in the tourism game, but they’re also real-deal genuinely trying to blend profit and preservation.

The true wealth here is not in fancy buildings or the latest iPhone but in the people’s generosity. It’s a beautiful paradox: having less, they share more, teaching us that real value isn’t about what you have, but about what you’re willing to give. I know it sounds cheesy, but in this case, the cliché is spot on.

Lessons learned

  • The prototype proved surprisingly highly energy-efficient, lasting three days on batteries even without solar panels.
  • Despite its modest 100-meter altitude, the signal could reach up to 12 km away.
  • The tag needs a slimmer, more scale-friendly redesign that doesn’t become a lever for predators like hyenas and lions.
  • Kenya’s intense summer heat doesn’t affect the system.
  • The Solar panel voltage fluctuation doesn’t compromise the system’s functionality.

The nerd details

  • Everything runs on Balena with easy remote troubleshooting and administration. GitHub
  • LTE router with a sim card for internet connectivity.
  • RPi 4 – to run Chirpstack and Traccar.
  • Piwatcher to restart the Rpi when not responsive.
  • Lorix one GW for collecting the data from the GPS tags
  • Solar – panel, battery, controller
  • 12v to 24v converter to power the LTE router and Lorix one via POE.
  • 12v to 5v converter for the Rpi power