Out of Africa: the digital tech taking on the rhino poachers

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett November 5, 2014
Summary:
In the first of series of articles looking at Africa's digital journey, Cath Everett looks at the technology increasingly used in the ongoing battle against rhino poaching in South Africa.

Although there is no single solution to the huge problem of rhino poaching in South Africa, technology is starting to play an increasingly important role in the fight against it.

A key issue for the developing country is simply the lack of resources at its disposal to tackle the situation, particularly in manpower terms. The world-famous Kruger National Park, for example, which at 20,000km2 is equivalent to the size of Israel, has a mere 400 or so rangers to safeguard all of the wildlife within its borders.

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Protecting the rhino

Kruger houses more than half of all the rhinos in South Africa, which is home to 82% of the continent's entire population and 93% of the world's white rhinos.

But according to Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, between January and 6 August this year, some 631 of the country's estimated 21,000 creatures were slaughtered for their horns, some 408 of them within the Park.

And the death toll continues to mount. This year's figures already compare unfavourably with 2013 when about 1,000 rhinos were killed in total, a worrying 10 times the 2007 tally, which is when that poaching really started taking off.

But with a lucrative black market estimated to be worth about $360 million per annum, and a willing supply of poachers, some 80% of whom come from impoverished villages over the border in Mozambique, the problem is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Technological response

To try and compensate for the lack of available resources, a key weapon in the war against poaching has become to deploy technology.

For example, in October, South Africa National Parks (SANParks) started a two-year project to build a so-called Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) in the south of Kruger, where 60% of its rhino population live, in a bid to make surveillance, early warning and detection easier.

To this end, boundary fences are to be fitted with motion sensors that can pick up movement and send GPS coordinates to an operations centre, which will deploy rangers either by truck or helicopter should a security breach take place.

But in especially vulnerable areas such as the Park's 220-mile eastern border with Mozambique, a gunshot detection system has already been up-and-running in pilot mode since May 2103.

The system called ShotSpotter was developed by California-based SST in order to alert police should gunfire go off within troubled US neighborhoods.

Now operational in 80 cities across the world, its potential in the struggle against rhino poaching was spotted by a South African mobile company, which does not want to be named for security reasons.

The system operates by placing three camouflaged sensors per km2 high up in trees to avoid damage - in contrast with the 10 to 12 per km2 required in much noisier urban environments.

The sensors, which include microphones and GPS software, have also been modified to run off solar power due to a lack of power points in the bush.

The secret though is in careful positioning so that the origin of gunshots fired as far away as two miles or 3km can be triangulated. Audio and location information is then sent to a 3G network, which transmits it over the internet to an Incident Review Centre in California.

Here employees confirm that the noise really is gunfire, before publishing the data to cloud-based software, which sends an SMS to Kruger's ranger operations centre with the audio file, coordinates and a link to Google Maps.

Anti-poaching tools

Although not officially operational due to a lack of funding from either SANParks or external donors, the system was actually used to arrest two SANParks employees for poaching in April.

In an attempt to make it even more effective though, ShotSpotter has also just been tested in collaboration with drones. Drones have largely been discredited as anti-poaching tools because their flying time is limited to a couple of hours over vast terrains, which means that looking for poachers ends up like looking for needles in haystacks.

But if integrated with ShotSpotter, the idea is that they could be deployed as soon as an alert is received to keep an eye on poachers' whereabouts using thermal imaging technology.

Positioning data could then be sent to rangers in order to pursue suspects more effectively. Currently they tend to take 30 to 40 minutes to get to the original site, in which case poachers are generally long gone.

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Another novel bit of technology though is the Rhinocerous DNA Index System (RhODIS), which was developed by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL) at Pretoria University about five years ago.

Based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Combined DNA Index System or CODIS, which holds human DNA profiles, RhODIS makes it possible to link suspects to specific crime scenes by matching ballistics information and DNA from recovered rhino horn with individual animals.

The ability to profile DNA in this way has already led to a good number of convictions, including a Zimbabwean poacher who was found earlier this year with horns from animals that had been living on a private game farm. He was sentenced to 10 years.

The database, which runs on Ubuntu Linux and currently holds 13,500 samples, meanwhile, is also used to track rhino should they be relocated - a procedure that now requires a permit from the Department of Environmental Affairs and a DNA sample to be submitted to the VGL.

eRhODIS

But earlier this year, the organisation took the initiative a step further. In order to replace its former paper-based sample collection forms, it took on Samsung as an exclusive technology partner to provide users with a new data gathering device, dubbed eRhODIS,
Based on the vendor's Android Jelly Bean-based Note 8 tablets, eRhODIS is currently being used by 22 crime scene investigators in Kruger and Environmental Management Inspectors across the country as well as in Namibia and Kenya.

After they have compiled the electronic forms, signed them using an S-Pen and submitted them to the eRhODIS cloud-based server, the system generates a printable PDF of the information, which is sent via email to both the sample collector and the VGL.

The RhODIS database synchs with eRhODIS each morning and users can log onto it using a web interface to view submissions as well as a map of poaching sites in their area.

But the aim is to expand the use of the system out to other species in the near future with lions, elephants and endangered cheetahs and wild dogs being top of the list.

As the VGL concludes:

RhODIS] isn't the whole solution to the problem. In fact, there probably isn't a single solution to the massive criminal problem of wildlife trafficking. But it is an accepted forensic tool that can play an important role in finding and prosecuting criminals involved in this activity.

And that has to be a start.