In 2015, Dimension Data and Cisco, a Johannesburg-based technology company, introduced the Connected Conservation project. Using a mixture of CCTV, biometric scanning, wi-fi, thermal imaging, heat maps, and data analytics, the technology has dramatically reduced rhinoceros poaching in a South African game reserve, which was once hindered by a lack of basic IT infrastructure and limited communication capabilities.
The technology provides conservationists with a novel method of thwarting poachers before they can reach wildlife. Instead of tracking animals, Connected Conservation collects data on those who enter the perimeter and sends park rangers alerts when unusual activity is detected. This solution has provided South Africa’s rhinos, who exist under constant threat from poachers, greater freedom and security of movement. According to the Irish Independent, the initiative has reduced rhino poaching in the reserve by 96% and the reserve has not lost a single rhino to poaching since January 2017.
Poaching incidents in South Africa continue to plunge. According to Bloomberg, South Africa reported a total of 769 rhinos poached in 2017, down 25 percent from the previous year. 2017 marked the first year since 2012 that less than 1,000 of the animals were killed illegally, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs said in a statement.
Though the project has yet to prove itself on a global scale, its success in South Africa hints towards a promising future. Aiming to eradicate all forms of poaching and eliminate the international trade of rhino horn and elephant tusk, the conservationists behind the initiative have already implemented the technology across Zambia, Mozambique, and Kenya.
According to Bruce Watson, conservationist and group executive of the Cisco Alliance at Dimension Data, the technology is “particularly well suited to Africa, where what we’re looking at doing is saving the rhino, elephant, lion and pangolin, and all species that are endangered.”
Parties in India, Asia, New Zealand, and the United States are interested in the technology as well. According to Watson, Dimension Data has received two requests out of tiger parks in India and “even had a request out of a bay in New Zealand, to look at protecting rays, whales and sharks.”
“We’ve been contacted by a park in Montana, it’s going to be a massive prairie park, probably one of the biggest reserves in the world, to look at putting our solution into that. … And then we’ll take it into South America as well, looking at protecting jaguars and mountain lions.”
This technology has arrived at a crucial and desperate time for the world’s wildlife. Believed to possess medicinal powers to cure illnesses, such as cancer and hangovers, rhino horn is sought for the eastern medicine trade. However, it is largely composed of keratin, a protein also found in hair and nails. Elephants are similarly poached for their tusks, a coveted source of ivory, unique in their texture and softness. Global demand for these materials have decimated elephant and rhino populations. Prior to the rollout of the Connected Conservation project, over 1,000 rhinos were poached every year in South Africa, equating to three rhinos poached per day. If this poaching rate persists, rhinos face extinction by 2025. Elephant-poaching statistics are similarly harrowing: an estimated 27,000 elephants are slaughtered every year, equating to an elephant being poached every 15 minutes. At this rate, the elephant population will be reduced to 160,000 by 2025. Without intervention, poaching shows no signs of abating. According to The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the ivory trade is at an all-time high.
The urgent need for novel approaches to conservation is plain to see. The men and women dedicated to the protection of endangered species are often stretched thin, forced to monitor vast swaths of territory with no access to basic technological infrastructure. Connected Conservation has mitigated this glaring security problem, but must adapt to the increasingly guileful and evasive tactics of poachers. According to Mr. Watson, poachers often “leopard crawl” across a road on their elbows and knees, leaving no tracks of their feet. Other times, they attach a plastic bottle to their feet, making it look as if a small antelope crossed the road.” In order to combat these deceitful techniques, Connected Conservation continues to explore new solutions to improve its work, using machine learning, artificial intelligence and more sophisticated sensors.