Sophisticated hi-tech puts poachers on spot
Since 2016 more than 2100 rhinos have been killed in South Africa, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs.
While fears still exist that local rhino populations could be wiped out in the near future, sophisticated equipment that monitors human movement in animal reserves has emerged as the game-changer in the fight against poaching.
Using hi-tech cameras, sensors and computers, digital technology companies Dimension Data and Cisco have launched their Connected Conservation system with great success.
Their pilot project at a game park adjacent to Kruger National Park achieved a 96% success rate over a 14- month period.
Dimension Data chief executive Grant Bodley reported that in 2017 no poaching occurred at the park. He refused to identify the park for security reasons.
He pointed out that previous technology focused on the animal but they had shifted their focus.
“Once the poacher enters a park, by the time rangers reaches them the animal is usually dead.
“Our system, which includes CCTV cameras, long-range thermal cameras and sensors on fences, is a more proactive approach to conservation. We are able to monitor the perimeter of the park and rangers are alerted to any suspicious movements.”
Bodley said rangers were able to react quicker “even if poachers drop in via helicopter”.
“Our latest addition is the tracking of vehicles that enter the park.”
SANParks has reported a drastic reduction in poaching in the Kruger National Park since it started using similar monitoring devices.
Previously, due to its wide area and large rhino population, the Kruger National Park bore the brunt of poaching. But in 2017, the number of rhino killed there was 504, which was 25% lower than the previous year. That improvement has continued into 2018.
Janine Raftopoulos, SANParks head of communication, said they also used cameras and sensors to great effect in the park.
“We are always looking to upgrade and update our security but you cannot be satisfied that you completely blocked out poachers.
“We are still experiencing some incursions, but far fewer,” she said.
Leslie Carlisle, group conservation manager of AndBeyond, the company that owns the Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, said he was familiar with the Connected Conservation project and the success at the Kruger National Park.
“Their systems are remarkable. We’ve seen the results,” said Carlisle.
But there was no “one size fits all” solution for conservation, he added.
“We believe that working closely with the communities living around parks is the best conservation solution because they provide the first line of defence.
“Together with technology and communities around Phinda we have the lowest density of poaching in KwaZulu-Natal,” said Carlisle.
Conservationist Kevin Leo Smith also said while technology worked for those who could afford it, it did not solve the problem.
He said after the Kruger spent a lot on beefing-up security, poachers had shifted their focus to KwaZulu-Natal, which is now suffering its worst spate of poaching in recent memory.
“Poachers have moved their concentration elsewhere. Criminals are good businessmen,” said Leo Smith. “They know what works for them.”
While the trend of using hi-tech monitoring equipment has also caught on in KwaZulu-Natal, an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson said they could do more to prevent poaching, but funding limited their efforts.
“We’re already seeing the effects of our security upgrades. From January to May 13 in 2017 we lost 88 rhino. In the same period this year, only 49 have been killed,” Musa Mntambo said.
“We are thankful to our partners who have helped us to pilot some new security methods,” he said. Wildlife activist Jamie Joseph of Saving the Wild reckons that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is losing the battle against poaching, particularly in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, which she described as a “graveyard” for rhinos.
Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, said private game reserves had become “soft targets” because they could not afford the latest security measures. “In 2016, private reserves owned 32% of rhino and our losses were 16%. But between 2016 and present our losses shot up 46%. Poachers have been focusing on private reserves,” Jones said.
As a result there are now only 330 private properties with rhino. Previously, there were 400.