Connected Conservation: Using drones, sensors and Wi-Fi to stop poachers

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The first stage of the Connected Conservation initiative involved installing an area network along with Wi-Fi hotspots at strategic points to connect the rangers

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By their very nature, wildlife reserves are generally located in remote areas beyond the reach of typical communications technologies. This is good news if you're a poacher trying to infiltrate area, and bad news for patrol teams working to keep them out. But a new initiative is looking to tip things in the good guys' favor by fitting out an African nature reserve with high-tech gear, such as seismic sensors and infrared drones, all of which is networked to keep tabs on who exactly is going in and out of the park.

In the past couple of years we've seen a number of projects aimed at curtailing rampant poaching in Africa's national parks by using drones for surveillance. Already trialled in Tanzania, Kenya, and other parts of Africa, these projects aim to give assistance to patrol teams on the ground by picking out trespassers from the sky.

Dubbed Connected Conservation, the new initiative from Dimension Data and Cisco will also use drones for surveillance, but as part of a more holistic technological solution. A big part of this is improving communications across the nature reserve, which is located alongside South Africa's Kruger National park.

To this end, the first stage of the Connected Conservation initiative involved installing an area network along with Wi-Fi hotspots at strategic points to connect the rangers. This allows them to receive notifications on their tablets alerting them to suspicious activity, along with GPS coordinates and a live video feed no matter where they are in the park.

This connectivity allows security personnel to carry out background checks on visitors who enter, using biometric scanning to quickly ascertain whether they have a criminal record and require a watchful eye. CCTV, the infrared drones, vehicle-tracking sensors, seismic sensors on the ground and thermal imaging along the perimeter will be the other tools installed and used to gather data on the people coming in and out of the park.

This information will be analyzed in real-time and combined with historical data to identify known suspects and alert rangers on the ground where need be. Then, if the situation calls for it, armed rangers can be deployed via helicopter to deal with the threat.

One of the current approaches to tackling the poaching problem is to fit rhinos with tracking sensors to monitor their whereabouts. But a big focus of the Connected Conservation project is to eliminate this need to interfere with the animals by monitoring the whereabouts of people in the area instead.

"With our Connected Conservation technology, we don't touch the animals by darting them with tranquilizers to insert sensors into their horns, or insert a chip under their skin," says Dimension Data executive Bruce Watson. "This can be extremely stressful and risky for the animal and we've seen a number of rhinos either dying, or going blind, and having to be euthanized."

In 2014, a total of 1,215 rhinos fell victim to poaching in South Africa, according to the country's Department of Environmental Affairs. This was nothing short of an environmental crisis considering how sharply that figure rose, from just 13 in 2007. If the brakes can't be applied, conservationists warn that the rhino may cease to exist in South Africa by 2025.

The area network is already in place and the team is now installing the remaining technologies for the Connected Conservation system. If successful, it is hoped that the model will be adopted in other reserves across Africa and eventually the world, in a bid to protect other endangered species, such as elephants, lions and tigers.

You can hear from the people involved in the project in the video below.

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