A multipronged high-tech system installed in a South African reserve has helped cut the number of poached rhinos to zero.
By Laurel Neme
PUBLISHED April 27, 2018
When you’ve heard a shot, it’s already too late. In all likelihood the rhino is dead, and the best outcome is that the poacher is found and arrested.
But now a potent new weapon has been added to the anti-poaching arsenal, helping rangers get ahead of disaster. It’s an integrated system called Connected Conservation, and it uses a combination of technologies—WiFi, thermal cameras, scanners, closed-circuit televisions, and sensors—to provide early warnings about suspicious activity. Rangers can deploy as soon as the perimeter of a protected area is breached and intercept intruders faster and with less risk to life and limb.
Connected Conservation is a collaboration between two international technology companies, Dimension Data, headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Cisco, based in San Jose, California.
Think of it as a souped-up home burglar alarm that covers a huge area and must function without faltering under harsh conditions such as lightning strikes, heavy rains, and baking temperatures.
The prototype has proved its mettle in a 135,000-acre private game reserve adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where from 2013 through 2015—the three years before the system was installed—roughly 70 rhinos were killed for their horns. (For security reasons, Wildlife Watch has been asked not to name the reserve.)
According to Dimension Data’s Bruce “Doc” Watson, the driving force behind the system, no rhinos were poached throughout 2017, and none have been killed so far this year.
“We’ve moved out of crisis management,” says David Powrie, the reserve’s chief warden.
The reserve, whose perimeter is partly fenced and partly open to allow movement of animals into Kruger, has a high concentration of wildlife: almost 150 mammal species—including elephants, buffalo, lions, and leopards, as well as rhinos—more than a hundred species of reptiles, and 500 of birds.
The first phase of Connected Conservation, begun in November 2015, involved setting up a wireless network that allows rangers to share information instantaneously, cameras that constantly monitor the reserve’s perimeter and gates, and scanners to record fingerprints and digitize information, such as passports and vehicle registrations, for everyone entering or leaving the reserve. Operations managers and technicians in an on-site command center sift through the information and use it, for example, to coordinate and direct anti-poaching teams.
Technology and the African bush usually don’t go hand in hand, Powrie says. “Between the topography, lightning, and other hazards, communications are a massive challenge.” On top of withstanding what nature throws at it, the system has to be able to distinguish between animals and people moving around the reserve.
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Incursions by poachers climbing over the fence or cutting it have fallen dramatically. Before Connected Conservation, says Dave Varty, a member of the reserve’s security committee, “we had an incursion every second night.” Now there are almost none. “Both the perception and the reality is that we’re a difficult place to get into, and we should be avoided.” Word is going out: “This is a safe haven.”
EARLY WARNING, TACTICAL RESPONSE
The moment any part of the reserve’s fence is cut or breached, an alert sounds. That, Watson says, “gives rangers more time and more opportunity to catch the poachers prior to a killing.” The early warnings have reduced reaction times from 30 minutes to 7, according to Watson.
During anti-poaching operations, rangers react more nimbly and more strategically. As information comes in, the command center relays it to the field, and teams can be redirected according to changing circumstances.
Knowing more about conditions on the ground also makes the rangers’ work safer. Because the system tracks ranger positions even in the dark of night, teams avoid so-called blue-on-blue situations when good guys mistakenly fire on each other.
“Rangers also know they can get help if they’re hurt or in trouble,” Powrie says. That helps with both safety and morale. “If someone is shot, or attacked by an animal, they won’t be stuck waiting in the bush.”
There’s another important benefit too. Continuous, comprehensive monitoring of the reserve makes it less likely that bad guys will bribe members of the staff to give them operational or other inside information.
“At any point in time there are a lot of systems in the bush that will pick things up and see that ‘naughty’ person,” Powrie says. “Helicopters with eyes, camera traps—all these layers mean that at the end of the day poachers and collaborators can’t escape.”
Watson anticipates that the second phase of Connected Conservation will be completed by the end of June. This involves expanding the ability of the wireless system to allow longer-range communications and overcome other limitations, burying magnetic sensors to pick up movements inside the reserve, equipping vehicles with sensors to track their whereabouts, and laying acoustic fiber lines around the perimeter that set off alarms when crossed.
He emphasizes that the success of the system comes not from any single component but the integrated functioning of all its parts. “It’s the whole solution put together.”
The goal now, he adds, is “to get a replicable model. We’ve had a number of requests. A lot of private reserves and national parks would like this system.”
A variation of Connected Conservation has already been deployed in part of a national park in central Zambia to help safeguard elephants and prevent the killing of animals such as antelope for bush meat and the death or maiming of unintended targets like lions that end up caught in snares. “We hope to extend [it] and spread our solution in phases across the entire national park,” Watson says.
Reserves in Kenya and Mozambique are next, along with areas in India and elsewhere in Asia that hold tigers. The big cats are in dire need of better protection from the black market trade in their body parts, mainly to China, for use as traditional medicine to treat everything from malaria to acne.
Beyond that, the goal is to adapt the land-based system for use in the seas to protect rays, sharks, and whales, among other species.
“Our intention,” Watson, says, is nothing if not ambitious: “to eradicate all forms of poaching throughout Africa, India, and Asia—and the ocean.”