Feature Story

Saving the Rhino with Digital Solutions

From drones to seismic sensors, new technologies protect threatened wildlife treasures.

A small herd of rhinos grazes peacefully in a game reserve near South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It is unaware of a growing threat from poachers.

As the intruders enter the reserve, thermal cameras and remote sensors sound an alert that is routed over a highly secure network. From a digital control center, a helicopter is dispatched, along with rangers on the ground.

The poachers flee, and the rhinos are saved.

Given the desperate plight of the rhino, rapid responses like this one last month are critical.

“In 2013, there were 1218 rhinos poached in South Africa,” said Bruce Watson of South African technology firm Dimension Data. “At that rate, three a day, they would be extinct in South Africa by 2025.”

To counter this stark trend, Watson’s team at Dimension Data is partnering with Cisco on a Connected Conservation pilot in the reserve.

In effect, they are “lighting up” the rhino’s habitat with digital technologies.

“This technology offers a very powerful mechanism to protect these animals and ensure that they are around for future generations,” said Neil Harris of Cisco, who hopes to expand the partner ecosystem and protect other species.

“We want to build something incredible,” he added, “one project at a time.”

The Internet of Things in the African Bush

Rhino horns are thought to be an aphrodisiac and cancer cure in some Asian countries. The fact is, they are made of keratin, like fingernails, and heal nothing.

That has not stopped a black market from thriving. But the digital strategy is helping.

“We have sought a proactive approach,” said Watson, “looking at protecting land from people, so we don’t have to interfere with the animal at all.”

That means the rhinos themselves are no longer fitted with radio collars, which, as Watson said, can cause blindness or death if tranquilizer darts carry the wrong dosage. At the very least, it stresses animals that are already under great pressure.

Cisco and Dimension Data are known for connecting everything from sports arenas to hospitals. Through Connected Conservation they are filling critical gaps in the war against poaching.

“Much of the poaching takes place at night,” said Colby Loucks, who leads the World Wildlife Fund’s wildlife crime technology program. “And most nature reserves just don’t have a sufficient number of staff to cover all the areas that need to be watched. That’s where sensors come into play.”

The goal is to stop poachers before they cause harm.

“The technology has a deterrent effect,” said Loucks, “because the poachers are not 100 percent sure of what they can and cannot do.”

Stopping an Asian Black Market at the Source

Since Phase One of Connected Conservation began in February, there have been noticeable results.

“The statistics are proving that we are going down the right track,” said Watson. “In our little reserve, we had 51 rhinos poached in 2013, 15 in 2014, and then about 10 in 2015. This year to date, we’ve only had two poached, and none of the horns were taken.”

In that first phase, the teams rebuilt the reserve’s control center, and placed thermal cameras and sensors at known infiltration points. Gates to the reserve are monitored with CCTV, biometric security, and links to national databases.

Cybersecurity was also critical.

“It’s a war zone,” said Harris. “If you have one data breach and the names of the guards in the park are released, they can receive threats to their families.”

Phase Two is expanding coverage to the reserve’s entire perimeter. This involves providing Wi-Fi to remote sections of the reserve and adding seismic sensors that distinguish between animals and humans. Drones have been tested over hard-to-reach areas.

“We are collecting and analyzing data continuously,” said Watson, “to improve on the solution, and hopefully replicate it in all reserves and national parks.”

The teams see many future applications.

“We hope to take it to all African countries and not only protect rhinos, but elephants, lions, and pangolins,” Watson said. “Then we will head to Asia and India for the tigers, and to the ocean for the sea rays, the whales, and the sharks.”

“This is collaboration at its best. We share technologies to make the world a better place,” added Harris.