New technology helps park rangers protect rhinos
In 1970 there were 20,000 black rhinos in Kenya. However, years of illegal poaching have meant that today a mere 650 remain. Something must be done. Otherwise the black rhino, and many other African animals with it, face extinction.
To find an effective way to stop the poaching, HiQ has teamed up with the Kenya Wildlife Service, the US-based Stimson Center and Linköping University in Sweden to conduct a pilot project.
The project has been carried out in the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, a nature reserve in Kenya, where rangers and staff are charged with protecting rhinos and monitoring their numbers. Before the project began, the park rangers were ill equipped in the fight against the poachers. If they were lucky, they had access to a vehicle, night-vision binoculars, a machine gun and a short-wave radio on a frequency open for anyone to listen to their conversations.
One of the challenges of implementing new technology in a nature reserve is the limited opportunities that are available for charging mobile devices. Any new technical solution that is developed must be energy-efficient.
One of the key partners in the project is the Stimson Center, a Washington-based US think-tank. Studies undertaken by the Stimson Center reveal that poaching is a well organised illegal industry with links to African terror organisations. Sales of rhino horn help to fund Al-Shabaab militants, for example.
Large numbers of rangers are needed to prevent poaching. And they need to be able to guard and protect all areas of the park. Theirs is dangerous work, as the poachers have no qualms about firing on park rangers. The Stimson Center contacted the Kenya Wildlife Service, which was more than willing to conduct a pilot project in the Ngulia Sanctuary in an attempt to get to grips with the problem. A pre-study was made with the assistance of Linköping University to examine various options that could make day-to-day life for the park rangers simpler and safer.
A great deal of time and effort was invested in talking to the rangers in order to get a better understanding of the tasks they are required to carry out. The rangers are based out in the field at several stations scattered through Ngulia. From here they are required to patrol every single square metre of the park at least once a month. The terrain – sand, water, mud – and the climate combine to make this a tough challenge. And there is also an ever-present threat from wild animals and poachers who can lie in wait in the rugged landscape. Rangers are also regularly relocated to other nature reserves to prevent them from becoming too closely involved with the park’s local inhabitants.
HiQ has also developed Secure our Oceans - a digital platform that simplifies the work of protecting the marine environment and the threatened species in the world's oceans.
HiQ has previous experience of working together with both the Stimson Center and Linköping University. One of our earlier assignments for the university was undertaken in liaison with Professor Fredrik Gustafsson and involved the development of a sensor/function application. This proved to be the ideal springboard for further developments that could benefit Ngulia. Based on a platform of sophisticated sensor technology, we have looked at opportunities for extending the system with smartphones, radar tracking, cameras, heat-detection cameras, drones, microphones and gunshot detectors. Using sensor technology that is available in any off-the-shelf smartphone, we have developed a broad spectrum of applications to make long-distance communication easier for the rangers.
Smartphones are also a far more secure form of communication than the conventional short-wave radio transmissions that rangers used to use and that can easily be eavesdropped by criminal gangs. The phones also incorporate GPS technology so rangers always know their exact location in the park.
The project is run by a team from the Stimson Center with the assistance of technical project managers from HiQ. Linköping University contributes with technical expertise and support from doctoral researchers in the fields of camera tracking, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and radar technology.
One of the challenges of implementing new technology in a nature reserve is the lack of electric sockets and a reliable electricity network. This means that technical solutions must be highly energy-efficient. Solar power is one alternative that will be used in the years to come, but even if the sun is a reliable source of energy in Kenya, it is not possible to install solar cells in all areas of the reserve.
The varied terrain presents another challenge. Large areas of the reserve are covered by tall trees which allow the poachers to creep up unseen or lie in wait. To help solve this problem, collaboration has been initiated with Kolmården Wildlife Park in Sweden, where drones and heat-detection cameras have already been used above the Kolmården “savanna”. This has enabled us to test our sensors in a secure environment and to study methods for easily detecting people in the undergrowth and for differentiating between antelopes and rhinos in the dark.
Kenya and Sweden have a great deal in common. We are united in ambitions to save our endemic wild animals but, on occasions, the cultural differences between the two countries are made plain. However carefully plans are formulated here in Sweden, it is essential to be receptive and flexible on site in Kenya and to be able to modify the plans when required. Experience has shown that something inevitably crops up that requires a new line of approach. One of the most important lessons we have learnt is that it is always worth taking the time and effort to communicate with end-users to get their perspective on their workplace and their lives. Everyone benefits from that.
It would be wonderful if we could report that we have helped to totally eradicate poaching. Sadly, however, that is not yet so. Nevertheless, we hope that we have made it easier for the park rangers to protect both the animals under threat and themselves from the poachers. Safety and security have always been our chief aim, but one of the synergies of the new surveillance system is that rangers now have firm proof that they are doing the job they are paid to do. This also provides their commanding officers with the information they need to promote the most capable rangers. The ambition is for the surveillance solutions at Ngulia to be scaled up so that they can be used in other parks elsewhere in Africa. The hope is that the smart savanna will soon become as much a part of modern life as smart homes, smart cities and intelligent cars.
HiQ is an obvious choice of partner in an era when more and more things in an ever-increasing number of places are becoming digitally interconnected. As new technology leads to the creation of more smart products and connected places, our appeal as a key development partner will grow even more. Telecommunications are in our DNA and we have the experience and the expertise to make a positive difference for our customers. The Internet of Things, or the Internet of Everything as some people already choose to call it, is still only at the very beginning of what promises to be a fantastic journey. In an age when products can also create services, we envisage being able to create for our customers opportunities that are truly enormous.