The clever tech keeping South African rhinos alive
There are good reasons to believe that the Internet of Things can be quite frivolous. The travails of setting up a virtually pointless Wi-Fi-enabled kettle in Hove is one thing, but just over 6,000 miles away the IoT can genuinely be a matter of life and death – if you’re a rhinoceros anyway.
The rhino may not be aware of their silent guardians, but they’re definitely present: a set of sensors and connections covering 62,000 hectares of private game reserve, adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. And the result is that rhino poaching has dropped by an astonishing 96%, and 13 arrests have been made.
“It’s been curbed quite dramatically because I think that word gets around the poaching syndicates,” explained Dimension Data’s Bruce Watson when we sat down for a chat at the Internet of Things World Forum. “They don’t understand the technology, and they avoid our area.
“They move to other areas of course, but the more we can implement the solution, the better it will become.”
The poachers may be unaware of the technology because it’s almost completely invisible – both to man and beast. Previous anti-poaching solutions involved drilling a sensor directly into a tranquilised rhino’s horn, which was then paired with another sensor cut into the subcutaneous layer of the rhino’s backside. If the communication between the two is lost, you know that something’s up – but obviously it’s usually too late by that point. “The rhino is either dead, or the horn has been removed already,” Watson explains.
Connected Conservation, on the other hand, is proactive rather than reactive. The 72 kilometres of fencing around the game park has sensors as well as thermal cameras, connected via Wi-Fi. “Every single sector along the electrified fencing is named, so as soon as you cut one sector you know what the co-ordinates are, and we send out the guards on the ground and the helicopter,” explains Watson.
Each named sector is roughly one metre along, meaning that the average response time is less than seven minutes. It’s flipping the way we think about animal conservation on its head: protecting the habitat rather than the animals. “You’re not interfering with animal behavioural patterns at all,” Watson explains proudly. “We’re using technology and people and gadgets to build a safe haven for the animals.”
Along the 72km perimeter, there are four entrances to the reserve. Each gate has CCTV cameras and biometrics. Vehicles are instantly cross-checked against the national database to ensure they’re not stolen and thate the visitors aren’t known criminals. There’s also an age-old solution for extra insurance: Irish Spaniels that are trained to sniff out weapons, rhino horns and bush meat.
It’s proved hugely effective – a 96% drop equates to just two rhino deaths since the park got its IoT upgrade. In both cases, the poachers didn’t get away with the horns – which isn’t much consolation, but does show that the system worked, just a little bit too late. In the same period, 26 attempts have been thwarted.
So how do people slip through the net? Footage from the thermal cameras shows poachers pushing a log against the electric fence and jumping over (“one man injured himself quite badly,” Watson says), while others cut the fence. Phase two of Connected Conservation is aiming to make the place more impenetrable against such attacks: installing thermal cameras along the west side, and an upgrade to acoustic fibre for more accuracy in detecting where the fence has been cut. Sensors will also be attached to every vehicle, so wardens will know immediately if visitors veer off the track.
The problem, of course, is that this is only one very secure park. And just as installing a burglar alarm suddenly makes next door’s house seem more appealing, the poachers aren’t giving up: they’re just looking elsewhere for their rhino-horn fix. The good news is that Connected Conservation’s success means a second park in South Africa is interested, and there are further plans to move into Zambia. Beyond that, they’ve had three requests to help protect Indian tigers and another to connect a bay in New Zealand where sea rays are systematically slaughtered. This sea-based scenario will present its own set of unique problems, but Watson believes that the buoys can be connected in a similarly effective way.
That’s the beauty of connected conservation: because it protects the habitat, rather than the wildlife, you don’t even need to adapt it to different animal behaviour. The animals are free to carry on living as they always have, blissfully unaware that they have high-tech guardian angels silently watching over them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.