Sophisticated technology brings the number of rhino poached to almost zero

Remote areas are extremely difficult to patrol for poachers, but cutting-edge technology can make a massive difference in saving endangered species. (Photo: Patrice Correia/Biosphoto)

Remote areas are extremely difficult to patrol for poachers, but cutting-edge technology can make a massive difference in saving endangered species. (Photo: Patrice Correia/Biosphoto)

“If I have one passionate dream, it is to eradicate all forms of poaching,” says Bruce Watson, group executive, Cisco Alliance: Dimension Data. “That to me would be one of the most successful things I could achieve in my life.”

No small feat, but one which Watson is working on through his Connected Conservation initiative, a groundbreaking project that uses multi-level technology to monitor human movement around rhino-rich areas.

The goal is to proactively intervene and stop people entering a reserve (we can only say that it is near Kruger National Park, for security reasons) illegally — whether it’s cutting fences, being dropped on the ground by helicopters, or simply driving in through the entrance gates.

“Every day, hundreds of staff, suppliers, contractors, security personnel and tourists enter and exit game reserves,” continues Watson. “The human activity in these environments is not monitored because, typically, the reserve is in a remote location with basic IT infrastructure and access control, manual security processes, and very limited communication.”

This kind of security has been previously impossible due to poor Wi-fi connections. Watson leveraged his relationship with Cisco, forming a partnership under the Connected Conservation banner, which allows them to deploy some of the world’s most sophisticated technology.

“This solution proactively tracks and monitors the movement of people from when they enter the reserve gates to when they exit, to protect, and create a safe haven for the rhino,” he says. “Since the technology was deployed two years ago, there has been a 96% reduction in the number of rhinos poached in the private reserve, as well as a 68% decrease of incursions into the reserve.”

“With our Connected Conservation technology, we don’t touch the animals by darting them with tranquilisers to insert sensors into their horns, or inserting a chip under their skin. This can be extremely stressful and risky for the animal and we’ve seen a number of rhinos dying, or going blind and having to be euthanased.”

Phase one of the project started in November 2015, with Dimension Data working closely with Cisco to gather information from game rangers, security personnel, technology, and control centre teams. The first step was to create a secure Reserve Area Network and install Wi-fi hotspots in key points.

Phase two is now underway and includes CCTV; drones with infrared cameras; thermal imaging; vehicle tracking sensors and seismic sensors on an extremely secure, intelligent network.

The system uses solar energy as an energy source and the technology used (sensors, cameras, and scanners) has no environmental impact, making Connected Conservation an environmentally sustainable solution.

Over time, the technology will be replicated in other reserves in South Africa, Africa, and globally, to not only protect rhino, but conserve other endangered species including elephants, lions, pangolins, tigers in India and Asia, and even rays in the ocean.

Special Mention: The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Threatened Amphibian Programme

Saving the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog has transformed the lives of local communities

It may be only 2.5cm long, but as a focal beneficiary of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Amphibian Programme, the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog has had massive impact on the local community living in the Adam’s Mission and iSipingo areas, the natural habitat of the endangered amphibian.

“When we started the project in 2013, the species was Critically Endangered and known only in a handful of wetland sites in coastal KwaZulu-Natal,” says programme manager Dr Jeanne Tarrant.  “The aim of our project was to implement on-the-ground species-specific conservation work; develop and implement a science-driven management and monitoring plan for the species; secure its threatened habitat; improve climate resilience and promote positive social change through education, employment and citizen science.”

To date their work has included the identification of 25 natural habitat sites (up from eight in 2008), the development of a Biodiversity Management Plan for the Pickersgill’s Reed Frog (which was approved by Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa in May 2017) and a tangible social impact on the surrounding communities through engagement and freshwater protection. This includes the removal of over 500 hectares of alien vegetation and the skills development of 65 people, who are now employed the ongoing implementation of a Working for Water project.

Amphibians are the most threatened group of vertebrates on earth, with half of the known 7 000 species experiencing population declines. Habitat loss and modification due to agriculture, urban development and natural system modifications are the main causes of these declines. South Africa is home to approximately 125 frog species, of which one-third are threatened.

“Our aim is to secure 30% (approximately 360 hectares) of the total Pickersgill’s Reed Frog population through habitat protection and improved management,” says Tarrant. “Presently 707 hectares, mostly within an urban setting, have been earmarked for habitat protection and are set to be proclaimed as protected environments by 2019 through working with local communities and landowners.”