Virtual tripwire to keep elephant poachers out of Zambian national park


Alex Scroxton, Computer Weekly

Date Published
See link for photo.

Network services provider Dimension Data, with support from Cisco, is expanding the scope of a two-year wildlife conservation project in South Africa to include Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park.

Back in 2015, the two firms started working on a private nature reserve adjoining South Africa’s Kruger National Park, using cutting-edge networking tech to try to reduce the number of rhinos falling victim to poachers – who sell their horns as curiosities or even medicine in Asia.

Spearheaded by Dimension Data group executive and keen amateur wildlife photographer Bruce Watson, the Kruger project has seen a massive investment in wireless and low-power wide area networking(LPWAN), communications and surveillance technology to support rangers and protect the area of the reserve, rather the animals themselves, from human incursion.

Previously, projects of this nature often relied on implanting tracking devices on the animals, but this was problematic, said Watson, partly because the implanting process is stressful and dangerous for both animals and humans, and because tracking devices are a reactive solution – by the time reserve rangers know something is wrong, it is usually too late to save the animal.

The success of the Kruger project had seen the number of rhino-poaching incidents in the reserve fall by 98%, and DiData reported that no animals were lost in 2017.

Dimension Data and Cisco are now taking the project beyond South Africa’s borders to Zambia, where the isolated and rarely-visited Sioma Ngwezi National Park – a key elephant habitat that lies on migratory routes between Angola and Botswana – has seen a huge drop in its elephant population.

According to the 2016 Great Elephant Census conducted by conservation charity Elephants Without Borders, the park saw an 85% carcass ratio (the percentage of elephants seen during transect flights that were dead). Carcass ratios of above 8% generally indicate unnatural population declines and, by comparison, Malawi and Uganda reported ratios of 2% and 0.5%, respectively, and the ratio across the whole of Zambia was 3%.

This indicates that Sioma Ngwezi has a serious problem with poaching, which is borne out by researchers on the ground, who estimate that between 4,000 and 6,000 poachers may be active in the area, many of them posing as fishermen, who cross a large lake to access the park from neighbouring game management areas – buffer zones set up by the Zambian government.

Dimension Data and Cisco will help to set up a new control room to monitor operations across the park’s boundaries, deploying CCTV analytics to create, in effect, a virtual tripwire that will detect the movement of boats on the lake.

Over time, park officials hope to use the data to build a pattern of movement on the lake, and alert Zambia’s recently established special forces marine unit (which is also getting a new powerboat) if there is night-time movement beyond the tripwire.

“We are also working with the Zambian local authorities and the fishing community to create a centralised digital fishing permit system that will monitor individuals who pose as fisherman but are actually poachers,” said Watson.

Meanwhile, fixed thermal cameras mounted on radio masts will line the park’s land border, creating a permanent virtual barrier that can be monitored and controlled from the central control room.  

The masts will also carry outdoor Wi-Fi equipment, creating a private network for rangers and security teams to use to view and share new information and communicate without their messages being intercepted by poachers.

Karen Walker, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer at Cisco, said: “More than ever before, technology has given us the ability to change the world – not tomorrow, not some day, but now. At Cisco, we are dedicated to making a difference by connecting the world and protecting the oldest and most vulnerable animals with some of the newest connectivity technology.

“In partnership with Cisco, our vision is to eliminate all forms of poaching globally through continuous innovation in technology to protect more vulnerable species in more countries.”