As the global conservation community commemorated World Ranger Day last week, rhinos and their ranger protectors have a new tool in the war against animal poaching within their reach.

An Internet of Things (IoT) anti-poaching solution from MTN Business has been piloted in the Welgevonden Nature Reserve, in Limpopo. The project has been running for 11 months and is in partnership with Wageningen University (based in the Netherlands).

Fran├žois Spruyt, chairman of Welgevonden Game Reserve, comments: “This project has unlocked a breakthrough solution, using technology and techniques that have the potential to revolutionise the fight against poaching.”

Using complex algorithms, the solution can detect the presence of poachers with 86% certainly within a range of 125 metres. With traditional methods, there is only a 3% chance of detecting and arresting poachers, which makes the fight against rhino poaching even more challenging.

Mariana Kruger, GM: products and solutions at MTN Business, says: “We are so excited about this solution as it’s redefining what is possible in the war against poachers.”

The system works by collecting data via customised collars, fitted to four species of animals that act as sentinels. The data that is collected is transmitted to a secure, low area network and transferred to a secure cloud, where it is analysed using state-of-the-art cognitive computing technology from Wageningen University to determine the presence of poachers in the vicinity.

The predictive nature of the solution gives game rangers the ability to detect the presence of poachers and take proactive steps to protect the animals before they are shot. This removes the need for rangers to be at the right place at the right time, or to respond to the distant sound of gunfire, which often suggests that a life has already been lost.

Kruger explains that, by harnessing all the layers in the IoT ecosystem, MTN was able to track the movements of and study stimuli of 117 collared animals at Welgevonden. Through this, 14,8-million data packet (PDU) messages have been recorded; while 3,2-million GPS locations and 62,5-million accelerometer measures, in an area of 12,1 square kilometres, have been registered since the solution was launched.

The amount of data collated represents the most comprehensive coverage of animal movements ever recorded anywhere in the world.

Kruger says the effectiveness of the solution can also be attributed to the painstaking work undertaken by Welgevonden’s rangers, and students from Wageningen University.

To conduct various experiments, they travelled 625km by car and 150km on foot. This was done so that they could test how animals reacted differently to people driving in cars, walking, and hiding in the bush, and whether there were changes in behaviour based on if they were armed or unarmed. These experiments were carried out over different seasons.

“This breakthrough will lead us to effectively combat poaching of other iconic species too but also will be the key to understand animal behaviour much better,” says Professor Herbert Prins of Wageningen University. “We are entering a new and very exciting world made possible by applying the best modern communication techniques and technologies.”

To date, the solution has been deployed in the breeding ground area of the park. Kruger says Welgevonden is considering rolling out this solution throughout the park, which will cover an area of 38 200 hectares.

Additionally, Kruger reveals there has been an expression of interest in the solution from other game farms and parks in South Africa and beyond.

Despite substantial investment by game reserves and farms since 2013 to improve their security, sophisticated and well-resourced poaching syndicates kill an average of one rhino every 12 hours.

South Africa is home to more than 70% of the world’s remaining rhino population. Over the past decade, more than 7 000 rhinos were killed across the continent for their prized horns, and in 2017, 1 028 were reportedly killed in South Africa alone.

“We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the capabilities that IoT can deliver in nature conservation, and in preserving the lives of the custodians of our wildlife heritage. We look forward to continuously improve upon the capabilities of this solution, and to rolling it out in other areas as well,” Kruger says.