Tech­nol­ogy takes on Africa’s poach­ing cri­sis

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Feature/worldwide - Gabriella Mul­li­gan

AS with too many of Africa’s iconic an­i­mals, rhinoceroses are in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion.

There are just over 29 000 rhi­nos liv­ing in the wild to­day glob­ally. Scat­tered across Asia and Africa, the world’s largest rhino pop­u­la­tion is found in South Africa.

While en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors are part of the rea­son, like ele­phants pop­u­la­tions, rhi­nos face an­other ex­is­ten­tial threat. Poach­ing, largely driven by de­mand in Asia, is now at its high­est lev­els in 20 years.

In 2015 alone, 1 175 rhi­nos were poached in South Africa. Neigh­bours Namibia and Zim­babwe are also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a rapid rises in the num­ber of an­i­mals killed.

Rhi­nos are tar­geted by crim­i­nals for their horn, in re­sponse to pop­u­lar be­liefs held most preva­lently in Viet­nam and China that rhino horns have al­leged medic­i­nal value. They are used in some Asian medic­i­nal tra­di­tions to treat every­thing from can­cer to a han­gover.

Rhino horns are made largely of ker­atin, a pro­tein. There is no sub­stan­ti­ated ev­i­dence of any medic­i­nal ben­e­fits.

None­the­less, de­mand for rhino horn con­tin­ues to grow and as rhino pop­u­la­tions de­cline, the price of horn soars. Wildlife ad­vo­cacy groups ad­vo­cate that black mar­ket prices not be re­ported, as they say it en­cour­ages poach­ing.

In­creas­ing prices are prompt­ing poach­ers to in­ten­sify their ac­tiv­i­ties through ever more vi­o­lent means. Park rangers and law en­force­ment of­ten come up against poach­ers wield­ing au­to­matic weapons and high-pow­ered ri­fles.

In re­sponse, con­ser­va­tion­ists and rangers across Africa are look­ing to im­ple­ment in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies to com­bat the poach­ing cri­sis.

Since 2014, for in­stance, the Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice (KWS) has been mi­crochip­ping rhi­nos in the fa­mous Maa­sai Mara na­tional park. The chips en­sure that if a rhino is poached and its horn re­moved, it can be traced. Se­cu­rity ser­vices are then alerted if the horn moves through any air­port.

But while this tech­nol­ogy is ef­fec­tive for crack­ing down on traf­fick­ing, it is re­ac­tive and does not pro­tect the an­i­mals while they are still alive.

How­ever, tech or­gan­i­sa­tions are now work­ing to de­velop pre­ven­ta­tive, pro-ac­tive so­lu­tions.

In the Lim­popo Prov­ince of north­ern South Africa, spe­cially de­vel­oped in­tel­li­gent cam­eras made by Axis Com­mu­ni­ca­tions are be­ing im­ple­mented to cap­ture poach­ers in the act.

Each unit costs around $9 500. The com­pany re­cently do­nated equip­ment to Thaba Manzi Wildlife Ser­vices, which is work­ing to cre­ate a safe rhino sanc­tu­ary.

In ad­di­tion to ther­mal imag­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Axis Q193-e cam­eras are de­signed to op­er­ate in­tel­li­gently by in­de­pen­dently analysing video footage as it is be­ing recorded. Equipped with mo­tion sen­sors, the cam­eras also pick up ac­tiv­ity in their vis­ual blind spots while analysing au­dio for sus­pi­cious noises.

The cam­era does not re­quire hu­mans watch­ing screens in an ob­ser­va­tion room. How­ever the pro­gramme im­me­di­ately no­ti­fies of­fi­cials through video screens and mo­bile de­vices if some­thing seems amiss.

“Rhino poach­ers have grown in force, us­ing au­to­matic weapons and high-pow­ered ri­fles to tar­get their prey. Tech­nol­ogy en­ables a smarter and safer fu­ture, and it will make a dif­fer­ence in the fight to pro­tect the rhi­nos,” says Roy Alves, South Africa coun­try man­ager for Axis.

In Tan­za­nia, lo­cal com­pany Bathawk Re­con has con­cluded suc­cess­ful tri­als of un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles (UAVs), or drones, to track poach­ing ac­tiv­ity. The com­pany is in the process of rolling out a full de­ploy­ment of the de­vices in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Tan­za­nia Pri­vate Sec­tor Foun­da­tion’s anti-poach­ing ini­tia­tive.

The drones can stay in flight for eight hours, cov­er­ing up to 4 000 square kilo­me­tres of park. From the air, they can de­tect and fol­low both an­i­mals and peo­ple. The footage is mon­i­tored in real time by teams on the ground, who can then quickly re­spond to any ques­tion­able ac­tiv­ity.

Mean­while, South African tech­nol­ogy com­pany Di­men­sion Data, along­side net­work spe­cial­ists Cisco, is in the process of im­ple­ment­ing a com­pre­hen­sive anti-poach­ing sys­tem at an anony­mous re­serve near Kruger Na­tional Park. The lo­ca­tion is kept se­cret for se­cu­rity rea­sons.

The so­lu­tion in­volves a com­bi­na­tion of WiFi, CCTV, bio­met­rics, ther­mal sen­sors and drones, with the in­ten­tion of creat­ing a se­cu­rity net­work that cov­ers the whole re­serve.

“We need more tech­nol­ogy around the world to pro­tect our an­i­mals and land,” says Bruce ‘Doc’ Wat­son, ex­ec­u­tive at Di­men­sion Data.

The sys­tem mon­i­tors ev­ery­one en­ter­ing the re­serve in­clud­ing staff, tracks their move­ments around the park, and en­sures they exit. The iden­ti­ties of ev­ery­one en­ter­ing the park as well as the de­tails of their ve­hi­cle are checked in real time against a na­tional data­base, en­sur­ing crim­i­nals and stolen ve­hi­cles are ap­pre­hended be­fore en­try.

By com­bin­ing mul­ti­ple tech­nolo­gies, the hope is that perime­ter breaches, aerial ac­cess and ab­nor­mal move­ments will be de­tected im­me­di­ately. How­ever park of­fi­cials re­fused to com­ment on suc­cess met­rics since the sys­tem was put in place.

While tech­nol­ogy is prov­ing to be a vi­tal tool in the war against poach­ing, it is dif­fi­cult to stay a step ahead of the poach­ers, ac­cord­ing to Mr Wil­liam Mabasa, gen­eral man­ager for com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mar­ket­ing at Kruger Na­tional Park.

“The prob­lem is that the poach­ers are also in­ter­ested in know­ing what tech­nol­ogy we in­tend to im­ple­ment. If we start di­vulging in­for­ma­tion, they might move ahead of us and de­vise counter ac­tiv­i­ties,” Mr Mabasa ex­plains.

The po­ten­tial power of in­no­va­tive tech so­lu­tions in coun­ter­ing poach­ing ac­tiv­i­ties is ev­i­dent, but Cathy Dean, di­rec­tor at Save the Rhino In­ter­na­tional, warns that tech­nol­ogy alone can­not pro­vide the whole so­lu­tion.

“New tech­nolo­gies are only as good as the per­son or peo­ple op­er­at­ing them. With­out prop­erly trained and mo­ti­vated staff, who know what to do with the in­for­ma­tion they’ve gath­ered and have the re­sources in place to fol­low up, the best tech­nol­ogy in the world is vir­tu­ally use­less,” she says.

Other chal­lenges abound. The re­mote lo­ca­tion of many rhino pop­u­la­tions means in­fra­struc­ture is of­ten limited, so com­pa­nies have the oner­ous task of build­ing sys­tems from the ground up or de­vel­op­ing stand­alone so­lu­tions that do not re­quire pre-ex­ist­ing road or in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture.

Fur­ther­more, na­ture it­self presents a chal­lenge. “Na­ture wears down in­fra­struc­ture – the in­sects, the birds, es­pe­cially the bats. It re­quires con­tin­u­ous up­keep to en­sure 100 per­cent up­time,” Mr Wat­son at Di­men­sion Data points out.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Masaba, ef­fec­tive anti-poach­ing strate­gies will re­quire a wide range of skills, tools and ex­per­tise work­ing in con­cert.

“No one can say this or that tech­nol­ogy will come in and be the ul­ti­mate so­lu­tion, you there­fore need a com­bi­na­tion of all avail­able tools to fight the scourge,” he says.

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, govern­ments need to show lead­er­ship by pri­ori­tis­ing preven­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of poach­ing ac­tiv­ity.

“We firmly be­lieve that the con­ser­va­tion world can com­bat rhino poach­ing through a range of strate­gies, but we do need the help of govern­ments world­wide... to treat rhino poach­ing as a se­ri­ous crime, not sim­ply a wildlife dis­as­ter,” Ms Dean con­cludes. — Africa On­line

Rangers put a tag on a young rhi­noc­eros. Rhino are in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion

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