Can Artificial Intelligence Help Pinch Poachers?
31 October 2019
On 24 January 2018, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife officially opened a new central anti-poaching command and control, or so-called ‘nerve centre’, in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (HiP) Park. The nerve centre forms the heart of an integrated smart park technology strategy being developed in HiP in partnership with Peace Parks Foundation through the Rhino Protection Programme, with significant support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery and the United States State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotic and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Coordinating collaboration of key rhino management role players in KZN
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife manages a unique geographic composition of multiple smaller game reserves throughout the KwaZulu-Natal province that host key state- rhino populations. Within the current climate of wildlife crime, protecting rhino and other key species throughout these dispersed conservation areas, necessitates advanced levels of coordination and complex integration of anti-poaching activities. Furthermore, this fragmented conservation landscape demands the bringing together of numerous role-players that include Ezemvelo’s own ranger forces and anti-poaching teams, the SAPS, other provincial and national security units, and private rhino owners.
Such synchronisation is also critical to the success of Ezemvelo’s protection zone strategy implemented with the support of Peace Parks Foundation. This approach involves the establishment of Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs) to lock down core black and white rhino populations at HiP and Mkhuze Game Reserves, as well as a Joint Protection Zone (JPZ) incorporating all other rhino reserves including private reserves.
Integrated data for tactical planning and response
The centrally located nerve center performs a key function in facilitating collaboration in the forecasting and evaluation of rhino poaching risks in the province, based on data gathered from technology systems and counter-poaching forces on the ground. These risks can then be flagged for action by local, provincial and/or national law enforcement entities. Rapid data analysis will assist with the formulation of actionable intelligence to be passed on for intervention to the National Rhino 8 SAPS operations centre based at Hluhluwe Air Field, or to other law-enforcement, judicial and/or wildlife crime investigation teams.
As a key component of the HiP Smart Park strategy, the central command also acts as a hub for aggregation and visualisation of data collected from various devices and sensors throughout the Park. The data is packaged and presented through a single, simple web-based application, where artificial intelligence is applied to interpret and analyse the data, allowing for quick decision-making and effective tactical planning.
In addition to improving response time and accuracy, the coordinated systems also enable Ezemvelo to keep track of the various teams – ranger forces, dog teams, aerial support, and external law-enforcement units – who play a critical role in day-to-day anti-poaching efforts. This enhances joint operations, prevents blue on blue (‘friendly’) contact, and improves the safety of those on the ground.
With the nerve centre now officially launched, the upcoming months will see additional capacity being deployed to ensure efficiency and sustainability, and ensure that new systems are integrated into daily anti-poaching operations going forward.
Werner Myburgh, CEO of Peace Parks Foundation, stated: “There is no silver bullet solution to conquering rhino poaching challenges. It is only through multi-faceted and cross-industry collaboration that rhino poaching can eventually be stabilised. We have seen this approach leverage success in other key rhino management areas in South Africa, and we are optimisic that Ezemvelo’s new focused and integrated approach to combatting wildlife crime will see rhino poaching numbers decline over the coming months.”
The opening of the nerve centre was attended by the US Consul General to Durban, Sherry Zalika Sykes, who formally announced a significant grant from the US State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotic and Law Enforcement Affairs awarded to Ezemvelo through Peace Parks Foundation. Specifically, the financial support is earmarked for the establishment of Intensive and Joint Protection Zones; further development of Provincial Operations, Planning and Information Coordination; and support to a Risk and Threat Management Unit. This grant forms one part of the $2.6 million the US Government awarded through the State Department in 2017, and $7.4 million since 2014, to combat poaching and wildlife trafficking across South Africa.
Speaking at the event, Ms Sykes said, “South Africa is making tremendous progress in developing new strategic approaches to conserve wildlife and combat the transnational syndicates that threaten iconic species such as rhinos, elephants, and abalone. And I am proud to say that the United States has and will continue to work with you in this fight. Working in partnership on combating wildlife trafficking and countering poaching will help us conserve incredibly diverse wildlife species, promote economic development, and combat the multi-billion-dollar illicit wildlife trade within our borders, across our borders, and globally.”
Acting CEO for Ezemvelo, Mr Bheki Khoza expressed his gratitude, “Ezemvelo has a long history with Peace Parks Foundation and the US State Department, who have both provided vital financial and operational support to rhino protection strategies over the past decade. We wish to express our gratitude to them, and to all our other donors and partners, for their continued support to our conservation efforts.”
THE HIP SMART PARK
The development of the Smart Park entails the deployment of a collection of integrated technology solutions that together create a connected environment to enable seamless collection and consolidation of real-time data from various devices and sensors throughout the Park. Intelligent surveillance systems, image recognition cameras, digital radios, handheld data collection devices, animal tracking sensors, gate and access control systems, vehicle and aerial response tracking systems – these are but a few of the data sources that will be integrated into the unified technology ecosystem. The establishment of the Smart Park will also include the provision of a Low Power Wide Area Network (LoRaWaN) with world class internet connectivity for the integration of smart sensors and the speedy transmission of data. The purpose of the integrated system is to provide park managers and rangers with improved insight into everything that is happening across HiP’s vast conservation space, and to respond in a timely manner with the right resources. It will also allow for mapping rhino movement and hotspots, and the subsequent planning and execution of more successful protection tactics.
The Rhino Protection Programme (RPP)
The RPP is a multi-faceted programme that focuses on developing and implementing practical, well-considered methods through which to combat the poaching of rhino, as well as disrupt the supply, demand and illegal trafficking of rhino horn. The RPP is implemented under the auspices of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in partnership with South African National Parks (SANParks), Ezemvelo and Peace Parks Foundation, and is made possible through funding from the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries as well as other private donors.