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Tech arsenal in poaching WAR

Can technology save the rhino?

Read time 10min 10sec

Nobody knows how to rescue the rhino from extinction. While politicians and conservationists lock horns about which policies or techniques might or might not work, rhinos are being poached off the planet. Could ICT help in this fight?

People in conservation don't like you asking about the tactics they're using to thwart rhino poaching.

That's understandable, since every time they develop a new strategy, the bad guys find out and circumvent it. Unfortunately, there is no single or simple IT solution; numerous technologies must be integrated to create a protective shield against poachers with an arsenal of sophisticated killing equipment.

That IT force field must include GPS tracking of rhinos, drones to monitor them and spot the poachers, cameras and sensors to survey the long, vulnerable fences, and biometric checks to identify people who enter reserves through the gates. Big data analytics are needed too, to collate and interpret all this information to predict and prevent attacks.

Rangers are being given night-vision equipment to track animals and poachers, and digital two-way radios for encrypted, secure communications; security and access control systems are being upgraded; and fences are being fitted with surveillance cameras and sensors.

"There's a massive role for technology," says Pete Richardson, director of a rhino orphanage at Legend Golf & Safari Resort in Limpopo. "Eyes in the sky are vital in terms of reconnaissance, and drones are a lot cheaper than helicopters, so drones absolutely have a role to play in prevention, as well as helping to track poachers once an incident has occurred."

The orphanage is working with the University of Connecticut to develop robots to administer drugs like antiseptics to injured rhinos, since it's less traumatic for the animal - and safer for the medics - if a robot can spray on the medicines. Testing those robots should begin this year.

Invasive technology is less attractive, but Richardson believes it has a place. "I'm not a fan of injecting things into rhino, but tracking them is vital. If the risk of the rhino being poached is higher than the risk of it being temporarily tranquilised and chipped, then I'd rather see them chipped."

Chips that allow GPS tracking of the rhinos can help drones and rangers monitor their location, but can't really protect them. They may speed up the response time to a poaching incident, however, hopefully reaching the animal in time to save it and catch the poachers red-handed.

A welcome trend is for IT to focus instead on monitoring the people who threaten the animals. In April, Cisco and Dimension Data unveiled a project in a reserve near the Kruger National Park that uses IT to catch or prevent poachers from cutting fences, being dropped in by helicopter, or driving through the gates. DiData executive Bruce Watson says the idea is to monitor human activity in these remote locations that typically have only a basic IT infrastructure, manual security processes and limited communication.

Thermal imaging

"With our Connected Conservation technology, we don't touch the animals by darting them with tranquilisers to insert sensors into their horns. This can be extremely stressful and risky," he says.

DiData and Cisco installed WiFi hotspots in key points across the park to create a secure Reserve Area Network. They installed CCTV cameras with thermal imaging along the perimeter fence, to alert the rangers to the GPS coordinates if someone tampers with the fence. The message is passed by WiFi to the rangers' tablets and the control room, which can launch a helicopter or drones to investigate.

It's easy to put cameras on gates and sensors on fences and give all the rangers new encrypted communications systems, but the challenge is to analyse all the data we collect and become proactive rather than reactive.

Craig Beech, Peace Parks Foundation

The companies also supplied drones with infrared cameras, vehicle-tracking sensors and seismic sensors, all linked to the network. At the entrance, biometric scanning checks visitors against a national database and flags anyone with a criminal record.

In March, Axis Communications sponsored three networked security cameras for a sanctuary in Limpopo. The cameras are designed to monitor long fences in rugged conditions and use both video and thermal imaging, with analytical software to distinguish between human and animal movements.

Proactive vs reactive

A different tactic comes from American company SST, which supplied its Shotspotter technology to the Kruger Park to identify the source of a gunshot. SST says microphones planted around the Kruger can pick up shots from up to 3km away, triangulate the source to within 10m and send the coordinates to an operations centre so rangers can be dispatched. By the time a shot is heard, the rhino may be dead, but the system has reportedly been used to catch poachers at the scene.

South African National Parks acting head of Communications William Mabasa refused to comment on Shotspotter or any other IT measures, saying SANParks doesn't discuss the technology it uses for safety reasons. IT was indeed useful, he added, and SANParks would like more help from the local industry.

+ Medical IT

Technology of a different kind is used by Saving the Survivors, a group of medics who treat rhinos that survive bullets and facial gouges. Recently, Dr Johan Marais operated on Hope, a 12-year-old white rhino whose horn was hacked out by poachers. Marais applied dressings that enhance wound healing and attached a thick leather shield to her face using stainless steel sutures. Part of her facial reconstruction was live-streamed on Facebook on May 3, the first time such a procedure had been seen in real-time.

IT can also help with gathering evidence to strengthen prosecutions. Samsung Electronics is the IT partner for the Rhinoceros DNA Index System (RhODIS) run by the University of Pretoria's Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. RhODIS can match DNA from recovered horns or crime sites to DNA profiles of live rhinos or horns in stockpiles.

Investigators at a poaching site use a Samsung Galaxy loaded with a RhODIS app to upload DNA data, geographical data and photos, which are transmitted to a secure cloud server as soon as the device comes in range of a network.

Not much of the IT being used is 'wow' technology, says Craig Beech, Information Systems manager of the Peace Parks Foundation, which co-ordinates the trans frontier conservation areas. Beech wants to see better use made of geographic information systems (GIS) to predict and prevent attacks, by collating and analysing data from sources such as vehicle and people-monitoring, animal-tracking, cameras and sensors.

"We're looking at how GIS can play a bigger part to predict incursions. It's easy to put cameras on gates and sensors on fences and give all the rangers new encrypted communications systems, but the challenge is to analyse all the data we collect and become proactive rather than reactive. Parks are still struggling with connectivity, so we're working with local and international partners to get systems in place with really useful information to make it quick and easy to make decisions on the ground."

Technology devices are getting smaller, cheaper, more powerful and more integrated and a lot of IT is being deployed, Beech adds. "But people are playing their cards close to their chests not to reveal too much. The balance is between the need for speed and making sure it doesn't impact on the welfare of the animal."

The decline of the rhino

Last year, rhino poaching in Africa as a whole hit the highest number it's been for two decades. By the early 1990s, just over 2 000 black rhino remained, and intensive protection has increased that to 5 000. Western black rhinos were declared extinct in 2011, while an estimated 20 000 white rhino remain. South Africa is losing more than three a day - a rate that will see deaths overtake births by 2018 and the rhino become extinct here by 2025.

The myth that rhino horn can cure anything from cancer to impotence has declined, but it's now become a status symbol for the wealthy in Vietnam and China. And that's a battle that even factual evidence can't win.

Eyes in the sky

Drones are an exciting development in the use of IT to combat poaching, giving rangers eyes in the sky.

These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been tested in the Kruger Park, and Ezemvelo reserves in KwaZulu Natal since at least 2012, and more trials began this year.

Much of that is facilitated by the Peace Parks Foundation and funded by the Lindbergh Foundation, an American organisation that runs the Air Shepherd initiative. Their drones from South African supplier UDS feature predictive analytic software from the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).

Algorithms designed by Professor Tom Snitch of UMIACS were originally used by the US military to predict insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Snitch has adapted the technology to predict where poachers are likely to strike. "We use very high-resolution satellite imagery to provide extremely detailed maps of the topography of an area. A wide array of data, with many different variables, is collected and overlaid on the imagery and, by using our algorithms, we're able to devise an analytical model of how animals, poachers, and rangers simultaneously move through space and time," Snitch said in an interview with Unmanned Systems Technology.

The software crunches data about poaching incidents, including the locations, times, weather, entry and escape routes, then pinpoints high-risk locations that should be monitored.

Drones with cameras patrol these areas, and if potential poachers are spotted, rangers are directed to intercept them.

More than 650 Air Shepherd missions have been flown since 2013, and no animals were killed while the drones were in flight, says Lindbergh Foundation chairman John Petersen. "Flying in one area where as many as 19 rhinos were killed each month, there have been no deaths for more than six months," he says.

Lise-Marie Greeff-Villet, communications coordinator of the Peace Parks Foundation, won't comment on those figures. "We're still doing our testing and can't disclose what we are finding so as not to compromise safety, security and operational advantages," she says.

When drones were tested a couple of years ago, they didn't have real-time video feeds like they do now, so the current tests are completely different because of how IT is evolving, she says. Part of their importance is to protect the rangers by giving them advanced warning of the number and position of armed poachers.

"UAVs can be a valuable aerial support tool to help anti-poaching teams on the ground, but it's not a magic solution - it needs a multifaceted and integrated approach to achieve a real impact," she adds.

Drones can cover vast poaching hotspots silently and safely, using cameras during the day and infrared and thermal imaging at night to detect any heat image moving across the plains.

Every drone has a solid-state inertial system to maintain its attitude, and zooming cameras are carried on gyro-stabilised gimbals to keep them pointing at the same location.

A ground control system sends navigational and camera-operating instructions to the aircraft, and live video is streamed back down via satellite. All communications are encrypted for security, and trained analysts interpret the information and dispatch rangers if necessary.

"We need to be more innovative and never cease to investigate the potential of emerging technologies," says Ezemvelo reserves CEO Dr David Mabunda. "Although there is no one method that puts an end to poaching, UAVs usefully complement the multi-pronged counter-poaching strategies Ezemvelo is already implementing."

This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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