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South African game reserve goes digital to save the rhino

Dimension Data and Cisco have teamed up to protect rhinos living on a private game reserve in South Africa with the latest networking and IoT sensor technology

Multinational ICT services provider Dimension Data and networking supplier Cisco have teamed up to protect endangered rhinos living in remote parts of South Africa from poachers who want to kill the animals for their horns.

According to international charity Save The Rhino, rhino horns, which are composed of keratin – the same material that makes up human hair – are greatly valued in traditional Chinese medicine, where they are mistakenly believed to be efficacious against fever, rheumatism and gout. Meanwhile in Vietnam, rhino horns are widely touted as a cure for hangovers and, worse still, have come to be seen as a status symbol among the emerging middle class.

This means that while the growth of animal rights movements in western countries has seen big game hunting much curtailed, though not eliminated, rhinos are still being lost at an alarming rate. In 2014, South Africa, which is home to most of the world’s population of rhinos, lost 1,215 animals – an average of three a day. At that rate, the rhino will be extinct in the wild in South Africa by 2025, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

For DiData’s Doc Watson – who helped set up the business more than 30 years ago and now manages its global Cisco alliance – helping to protect South Africa’s rhino population was something of a personal crusade, as he is a keen wildlife photographer.

Dimension Data has already gone all-in on a number of large internet of things (IoT) connectivity projects, from medical solutions in Australia and traffic management in Spain, to the world-famous Tour de France cycling race.

“Two years ago, I thought a great project would be to win the hearts and minds of people in terms of connected conservation, and I began to think about it in terms of protecting animals,” Watson tells Computer Weekly.

“I approached John Chambers, Chuck Robbins and Chris Dedicoat, who were the number one, two and three at Cisco at the time, and said why don’t we get into this project and put people, gadgets and technology together in terms of the IoT?” he says.

The partners homed in on the Kruger National Park, which stretches along South Africa’s north-eastern border with Mozambique, and is home to most of the country’s rhino population.

Bespoke experiences

Immediately to the west of the park lie a number of private game reserves that contain high-end safari lodges promising more bespoke experiences for tourists. It was one of these sites that was chosen for the project.

So as not to attract the attention of the organised crime syndicates behind much wildlife poaching in Africa, Dimension Data and Cisco are not allowed to name the reserve hey have been working with, but it covers 620km2, about the same size as Merseyside. Kruger itself is about the size of Wales.

The sheer scale of the site posed challenges for the reserve’s rangers, who were hampered by manual security processes and difficult-to-manage access control, while its remote location meant there was a complete lack of basic IT infrastructure, including no mobile reception or fixed data links.

This made it particularly vulnerable to being infiltrated by poachers, and rangers on the ground needed to be exceptionally lucky to stop any incidents. As local rangers say, “if you hear a shot, it’s too late”.

The need for rapid response also meant it was impractical to tag and track the rhinos using IoT sensors, says Watson, partly because if the sensors stop communicating, it would again be too late to respond effectively.

Also, the process of tagging a rhino is unpleasant and unnecessarily cruel. First, rangers must tranquilise the animal – these days this is usually done from a helicopter – which is dangerous and stressful for the rhino’s health, then drill a hole in its horn to insert a tracker while it is unconscious.

Protecting the land

“What is different about our solution that it is a proactive solution,” says Watson. “Effectively what we do is protect the land against the people, those people being illegals coming in to poach.”

The reserve’s border with the Kruger National Park is unfenced to allow animals to roam freely, but its other boundaries are all contained by a 72km electrified fence. Dimension Data has now installed routing technology right along this perimeter – including the section bordering Kruger, which has its own protection scheme run by the South African government – to boost private radio communications between the rangers in the reserve.

Meanwhile, at each of the reserve’s four entry gates – three of which are vehicular – it has set up a local area network (LAN) with Wi-Fi access, closed-circuit TV and biometric checks for everybody entering the reserve, from staff to suppliers to visitors.

The entry points are also linked to South Africa’s national database so that every single car or person entering the reserve can have their identification and vehicle licence plates checked against police records to ensure they are not a wanted person, or driving a stolen car. On an average day, the technology upgrades mean park staff can check in between 1,000 and 1,200 people, including those flying in by light aircraft.

Back out in the sticks, Dimension Data has set up thermal cameras at zones that are known to be highly-used entry points for poachers, along with sensors on the fencing to detect any breaches. This set-up is linked to a centralised control room that is monitored every second of every day.

Read more about IT in conservation

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  • UK CIO of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, David Southern, describes a technology refresh at its Woking HQ.

The reserve rangers have two means of responding to any incidents – by motor vehicle or by putting a helicopter in the air. According to Watson, rangers can now be anywhere in the reserve within seven minutes of an alert.

The results have been quite spectacular, he says. “It has been running for over 12 months. From February 2016 to February 2017, we had a 96% reduction in poaching. In 2013 we lost 51 rhinos, and it decreased each year up to last year, when we lost two, but no horns were taken. What we have effectively done is create a safe haven for the animals.”

But even two rhinos lost to unnatural causes is two too many, says Watson, and Dimension Data and Cisco mean to go further still.

“We are about to begin phase two, which is using LoRaWAN [a particular low-power wide area network technology standard] to enhance communications for all rangers internal to the reserve, which is quite an achievement, as well as thermal cameras right around the perimeter fence, and acoustic fibre, which means as soon as it is cut, we can determine the exact point of the break,” he says.

“The third thing is we’re getting sensors that we will fit onto every single vehicle that comes in, and we will track every single vehicle. You get cars coming in going from the gate to a lodge and back to the gate. If they deviate from the route, we will be able to intercept them.”

The scheme has already caught the attention of wildlife conservationists elsewhere in Africa, and around the world. Watson recently received the go-ahead to deploy a similar project as a pilot project at a park in Zambia, which wants to combat the bushmeat and ivory trades.

“We are going to move it not only into southern Africa in terms of both private reserves and national parks, but further into Africa to protect not only rhinos but elephants, lions and pangolins, then into India to protect tigers,” says Watson. “And we’re going to move it to the ocean – we’ve already had requests in terms of saving rays, whales and sharks.”

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