Zebras enlisted in IBM’s IoT-based battle to keep rhinos safe
IBM endangered rhinos, keeping them safe from poachers with the IoT

Zebras enlisted in IBM’s IoT-based battle to keep rhinos safe

As part of the build-up to World Rhino Day on Thursday, IBM, African telecommunications giant MTN, Wageningen University and IT provider Prodapt have launched a ‘connected wildlife solution’ capable of combatting poachers in real time. The program is being trialed to protect endangered rhinos at the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa. 

Anything can be connected these days. Just ask the zebras currently running around South Africa’s Welgevonden Game Reserve. Along with a large number of impalas, they’ve been unwittingly employed by IBM as part of an animal Internet of Things (IoT) to help protect rhinos from poachers.

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Turning to technology in the fight against illegal poaching

It’s estimated that 70 percent of the world’s rhino population resides in South Africa. Because of continued poaching, their numbers are continuing to dwindle. In 2016, some 1,054 rhinos were reportedly killed in South Africa, according to figures from conservation charity, the World Wildlife Fund.

“Poachers have been increasing in numbers and they have become more militarized,” says Bradley Schroder, CEO of the Welgevonden Game Reserve. “The only way to stop them is to bring in technology and things that they do not have.”

One thing poachers certainly don’t have is the animals on their side. IBM is calling on the reserve’s other residents to form an early warning system that can help track poachers in real time.

The hiring of herbivore henchmen starts with a predictive capability developed by an animal sciences group at Wageningen University. According to the group’s research, prey-animals in the wild react in different ways depending on the threat they are facing. Lions or leopards will elicit a different kind of response to, say, the presence of poachers.

Wageningen University’s research is pivotal to the ‘Connected Wildlife Solution’, which combines IBM’s IoT technology, predictive analytics and MTN’s connectivity. Connected collars are attached to prey-animals in the area, such as zebra, wildebeest and impala. With the help of a LoRa network and MTN’s 3G and 4G capabilities, these transmit the animal’s movements back to a central platform.

Game reserve teams can then be alerted when these animals are behaving in a way that suggests poachers are in the vicinity. Zebras may move as a single unit to protect themselves from traditional predators, for example, but scatter at the site of a poacher. This allows conservation teams to respond proactively and be in the right place at the right time to keep rhinos safe.

zebra in the animal IoT, by IBM
Zebras are among the prey animals in the reserve that behave differently depending on nearby predators. Their reactions to poachers are being tracked.

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A proactive solution to protect rhinos

Schroder sees the project with IBM as a breakthrough in tackling illegal poaching. “One of our primary objectives is to protect wildlife, especially endangered species. We were looking for a solution that would help us better understand possible threats and weed out those coming from poachers so we can react ahead of time and prevent harm to animals,” he said.

“This project will be a profound breakthrough in the creation of connected wildlife solutions, a wildlife management concept that aims to harness IoT technology to better manage and protect wildlife and other assets.”

Mariana Kruger, general manager at MTN Business, sees the connected wildlife solution as an upgrade on tracking technologies previously deployed in game reserves. “Over the years, we have seen that animal tracking technology has been used reactively in game reserves. Welgevonden needed a more proactive solution to take the fight to protect the rhinos further,” she said.

“With the solution designed for Welgevonden, MTN, along with our partners, can better predict and anticipate potential poaching activity. This allows the ranger to take pre-emptive action before any threat happens.”