IoT technologies are rapidly becoming a useful weapon in the fight to save rhinos and elephants from poachers, writes Jessica Twentyman.
When Minister Edna Molewa from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs announced rhino poaching numbers for the nation in January this year, there was good news and bad for conservationists.
On the positive side, poaching numbers saw a slight decline from the previous year: 1,028 rhinos were poached in 2017, compared to 1,054 in 2016. However, losses still remain unacceptably high, and while poaching was down in Kruger National Park, it rose significantly in other provinces, especially KwaZulu-Natal.
On top of that, the outlook for rhino population growth continues to be severely impacted by poaching and the culprits are proving adept at changing their target sites and trafficking strategies.
In the spirit of fighting fire with fire, consultants at IT services firm Dimension Data have spent the last few years applying IoT technologies to the problem, and have changed their strategies, too. Instead of focusing on the animals under threat, typically through tagging them, they’re now concentrating their efforts on the poachers instead. The upside of that is that animals no longer need to be sedated by dart gun, a process that comes with some risk to them.
Pilot project results
Back in April 2016, Internet of Business reported on a joint initiative in South Africa involving Dimension Data and Cisco, named Connected Conservation. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ruth Rowan, chief marketing officer at Dimension Data, to get a progress report on the project and find out more about how the two firms are now extending their programme into three other countries: Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique.
The focus of the pilot project, as Rowan explained, was a private game reserve in South Africa, which is unidentified for reasons of security. “Rhino poaching is so endemic that we can’t risk discouraging or encouraging poaching in any particular area, because the problem just moves around,” she explains.
The results of this pilot have been impressive. Back in 2014, the reserve was losing more than one rhino per week to poachers – 54 animals in total. “They were at crisis point. The situation had got out of hand and the escalating levels of poaching weren’t just a point of conservation concern, but also from a commercial perspective, because these reserves are dependent on tourist income,” says Rowan.
In other words, if the rhinos disappear, these reserves are no longer a place that visitors will come to see the ‘Big Five’ – rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards and Cape buffalo – in their natural habitat.
Last year, by contrast, the reserve lost no rhinos at all, thanks to the Connected Conservation rollout, which kicked off in 2015.
Intrusion detection has been a big focus of the IoT technologies deployed in the pilot project. That, in itself, was a big challenge. “These are huge geographic areas and very remote. The reserve in the pilot project covers an areas of 62,000 hectares,” Rowan explains.
So an important first step was to get WiFi installed at security gates and connect the gates to each other, so staff could communicate across the reserve.
CCTV was also installed, connecting to a national database, so that rangers could use biometric recognition to identify individual entrants to the park and detect those with connections to poaching rings or previous convictions for poaching. Vehicles, too, could be identified by their number plates. “Also, if someone tries to gain access at one gate and is turned away, staff at other gates are alerted, in case they try again there,” she says.
The perimeter fence, which runs for 75km along the reserve’s western boundary, was also secured using the IoT. Acoustic fibre and sensors embedded along the fence line raise the alarm if the fence is cut. Seismic sensors will do the same, if poachers attempt to dig their way under the fence.
Thermal cameras also detect suspicious human activity and give a good indication as to how many people might be involved in a potential intrusion. The IoT technologies are connected to a central control room for 24/7 monitoring. “All this gives rangers better insight into what they’re dealing with and enables them to respond faster,” says Rowan.
Average ranger response times since the pilot have been cut from around 30 minutes to just 7 minutes, so poachers don’t get much of a chance to penetrate the reserve, let alone locate animals and kill them for their tusks.
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In May 2018, Dimension Data and Cisco announced new plans to take the technology to other conservation hotspots in Africa. Work has already begun on a reserve in Zambia and is about to start in Kenya, and then Mozambique. In Kenya, the focus is on both rhinos and elephants. The other two countries are focused on elephants only.
“Off the back of that initial project, and the results we got that demonstrate that IoT can make a real difference, we now feel confident enough to take this technology into new areas where poaching is a concern,” says Rowan.
Much of the same technology will be reused, but the project in Zambia comes with an additional complication, in that the reserve is bordered by a lake. Here, it’s important to distinguish between people who fish the lake for their livelihood and have permits to do so, and poachers who use boats to gain access to the reserve.
CCTV analytics will be deployed to create a virtual trip line that automatically detects the movement of boats on the lake, identifies those people who are their legitimately, and builds up a picture of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour on the lake and what might be considered suspicious – particularly night-time movement across the trip line.
According to Dimension Data CEO Bruce Watson, the company is also working with the Zambian authorities and the local fishing community to create a centralised database of fishing permits, in order to catch out those who pose as fishermen, but are actually poachers.
While the South African pilot project was funded by Dimension Data and Cisco, the newer projects involve a mix of government-run and private parks, and will be run along more commercial lines, according to Rowan.