Zebras, impalas and wildebeest warning park rangers of poachers. A smart computer system designed by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) makes it possible. This gives game reserves extra ammunition in the fight to protect endangered species such as elephants and rhinos.
In South Africa alone, an average of two rhinos a day are killed by poachers. Both rhinos and African forest elephants are threatened by extinction. Their horns and tusks are considered a status symbol in countries such as China and Vietnam and are used to produce traditional medicines. Their value per kilogramme is higher than that of gold or cocaine, making these animals a profitable prey for poachers. Game reserves use drones, fences equipped with sensors and even the army to deter poachers. But this is still not enough.
On the run
Wageningen University & Research offers hope. Five years ago, a team of ecologists came up with the idea of equipping zebras, impalas and wildebeest with GPS-transponders. These ungulates are generally wary and smell threats from afar. If a poacher is perceived to be sneaking through the foliage, they become restless and bolt.
The Wageningen researchers gathered a staggering amount of information on the animals’ normal and deviant behaviour. They used this data to develop a computer system that signals an alarm when poachers are nearby. In this project, which was funded by the NWO (Dutch Research Council), they collaborated closely with mathematicians and technologists of the universities of Leiden and Eindhoven, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, Van Hall Larenstein and some three ICT- and telecommunication companies.
Field tests in a South African game park show the system works well. Nine out of ten test subjects that go into the bush are detected, and the system shows their whereabouts with an accuracy of up to 200 metres. This is the distance at which park rangers can apprehend the poachers.
In the area where the field tests were conducted, poaching dropped to almost zero incidents since the first experiments. The Wageningen researchers now collaborate with the game reserve to develop an alarm system for a 360 square kilometre area, the size of Amsterdam and Utrecht put together. If the system works in that area as well, it will be deployed elsewhere in Africa. Thus, the lives of many elephants and rhinos will be spared.
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