This story is part of Gear Patrol’s continuing look at different approaches to sustainability, leading up to Earth Day on April 22nd.
From the verdant vineyards of Stellenbosch and the craggy cliffs along the Garden Route to the world-renowned safari sanctuary that is Kruger National Park, South Africa stands out as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
There, the buffalo and wildebeest stroll, the elephants and rhinos roam, and the leopards and lions lurk behind baobab trees, traversing parts of this planet most humans won’t ever tread — save for the rangers who patrol these parks for poachers. And thanks to a clever pilot program from Swedish electric bike maker Cake, a growing number of those rangers are doing so in a cool new way: on silent, solar-charged e-bikes.
With 35 years in product development, the same man who founded iconic cycling and snow sports outfitter POC has now partnered with the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) to build the Kalk Anti-Poaching (AP) line of bush bikes and aid wildlife conservation. CEO Stefan Ytterborn is donating 3 percent of profits from the line to SAWC, which trains rangers in 127 parks around Africa, but the bikes themselves promise a more dramatic impact.
“My biggest passion has always been my business,” Ytterborn says, calling his work a “combination of heart and brains” and this particular project “the perfect combination of trial and error, science and reality.”
The project is still in its infancy, with a total of 10 bikes in action or on their way — all funded with a buy-one, give-one program by consumers. With an eye toward sustainability, each bike is accompanied by Yeti 6000X power stations and Boulder 200 briefcase solar kits provided by Goal Zero, Cake’s partner in solar-powered products.
“The rangers using the Yeti 6000X can experience virtually unlimited power by charging with the Boulder solar panels,” explains Bill Harmon, Goal Zero’s general manager. “It’s a durable, safe and effective solution without the noise, fumes or maintenance of traditional gas generators.”
Traditional bush bikes are inefficient and unsustainable. They run on costly gasoline (often shipped long distances via trucks or helicopters) with loud combustion engines that contribute to greenhouse gases and warn poachers miles away.
“The relationship between Cake and the SAWC is an extremely important one,” notes Theresa Sowry, SAWC’s CEO. “Bringing innovative green technologies into the field of conservation will allow for more effective and efficient management of wildlife areas.”
The new approach couldn’t come at a more critical time. Poachers killed 451 rhinos in South Africa last year, according to the nation’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. In 2020, 16 elephants were poached for ivory in Kruger National Park alone, the department reported. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, the black rhino population is down 97.6percent since 1960, and upwards of 35,000 African elephants are killed each year.
Laws are often toothless and poachers are persistent. Those patrolling the parks put their own lives on the line to stop them.
“Days are varied depending on the threat,” notes Mfana Xaba, an anti-poaching team leader on the ground in South Africa. Alongside an intelligence crew and informer network, his team patrols day and night, both in the field and with aerial surveillance, prepared to ambush. So do the bikes help?
“Just recently, a two-man patrol was able to surprise a small group of poachers with dogs hunting suni [small antelope] at night,” he says. “Because the bikes are silent, they could get close enough to make an arrest. Night arrests are particularly difficult, so this was an important one for us.”
Both bikes in the Kalk AP line — the Kalk AP and Ösa AP — have been modified to suit the unique needs of teams like Xaba’s.
The ultralight Kalk AP, driven by 280 Nm of torque with an 11 kW motor, is quiet and quick, with a top speed of 56 mph. The Ösa AP, on the other hand, is more of a workhorse. With a modular, clamp-on configuration system, it can transport heavy equipment loads and double as a portable power station with multiple outlets.
What would normally be plastic parts on the bikes are made of biocomposites from Trifilon, a Swedish brand specializing in sustainable materials. The drivetrains are altered for torque, and the suspensions are tweaked to minimize maintenance, while fat tires tackle untamed terrain with ease.
Both bikes feature three different riding modes, so riders can choose between extended range, maximum power, or performance and control depending on their needs and environment. Multiple brake modes boast high-tech motor-control algorithms that allow for freewheeling and energy regeneration.
“There’s a lot of potential for using the bikes for female rangers as well ... and a goal [the SAWC has] is to involve more women,” adds Klara Edhag, leader of Cake’s anti-poaching project. “They are almost half the weight of normal combustion bikes.”
Nonetheless, there’s always room for improvement.
“The seat seems to be designed for motocross, so a more comfortable seat for long days in the saddle would be good,” Xaba shares, adding that a longer battery life would make them “more practical in large areas.”
Right now, Edhag says, the bikes should run for about five hours while patrolling. At full speed, however, they may only last an hour.
With Cake Connect, rangers can get in-depth performance data and alerts — and the folks who bought the 10 bikes that funded the project can check up on their siblings in Africa.
“All of our bikes are connected and allow for [remote] monitoring,” says Daniel Pettersson, Cake’s head of connectivity. “This includes position, battery [life], fault codes and many more parameters of usage ... to track what area has been covered and how the bike has been used.”
This spring, Cake launched the first system for organizations to track fleets of bikes. There’s also talk of a drone-surveillance function to monitor them, as well as concepts for solar station carriers.
In the meantime, the brand is seeking a more reliable material for the fenders, a better sealant to combat dust and more efficient and sustainable ways to transport power stations— all to prolong product life cycles, for both the rangers and for the planet.
“The way we see it, the biggest threat to sustainability is our pace of consumption,” Ytterborn explains. “We base our product development on purpose, innovation, performance and physical quality. Those, together, help us serve the market with what can be used from generation to generation.”
Of course, this program is just the beginning of what the brand hopes will be a wide-ranging revolution in conservation. At press time, Cake has been approached by national parks from Canada to Australia to Pakistan, all inquiring about these clever e-bikes.