Can Artificial Intelligence Help Pinch Poachers?
31 October 2019
The Postcode Meerkat, a wide-area surveillance system, has been operationally deployed in South Africa’s Kruger National Park for the better part of 21 months. Surveillance data and information collected through this system have been instrumental in saving both human and animal lives and have greatly contributed to the effectiveness of anti-poaching teams in the park.
The product of a partnership between South African National Parks (SANParks), Peace Parks Foundation and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), this innovative system has been designed to overcome the challenges that cause traditional surveillance equipment to fall short in the African bush environment. Extreme temperatures, thick vegetation and difficult terrain had research and development teams look to a combination of radar and electro-optical technology that would enable the surveillance system to detect human movement over large distances.
Postcode Meerkat, its name giving recognition to the People’s Postcode Lottery of the UK and the Dutch Postcode Lottery who supported the research, development and deployment of the system, combines the detection, localisation and tracking capabilities of radar with the visual target classification that an electro-optical system provides. It has a dual camera optronic sensor which offers both day and night surveillance capabilities – a significant advantage in anti-poaching operations.
Security interventions are only as effective as the intelligence information that informs them and Postcode Meerkat has proven itself as a force multiplier of note, significantly contributing to operational successes. The early detection of targets has ensured the efficient and purposeful deployment of rangers and other high-value resources, such as canine systems and helicopters, to maximum effect.
Data collected over time has also proved invaluable to understand the modus operandi of those hunting illegally in the park.
High risk, high reward
Postcode Meerkat was commissioned and developed in less than a year and following a successful test phase, the first system was launched during an event in December 2016. Shortly thereafter, it was operationally deployed to a high-risk area, classified as such because the vegetation found there makes it a favourable home to large numbers of both black and white rhino. The more rhino in an area, the easier it is for poachers to find them and the more difficult it becomes for rangers to protect them.
Postcode Meerkat is the ideal technology to be deployed into these high-risk areas because it provides surveillance, early warning, detection and tracking which allow security teams to disrupt poaching groups, effectively catching them before they hunt. Over time, as word of the arrests spread, poachers are also being deterred from entering the area.
The system’s effectiveness was proven early on as the areas to which it was deployed were secured four times faster than before and there was an 80% decrease in poaching incidents. The detection rate of more than 90% resulted in an arrest and disruption rate of 70%.
“The area to which Postcode Meerkat was first deployed was extremely hard hit and many rhino losses were suffered there, despite the dedicated efforts of anti-poaching teams. Now, with the information provided by the system, rangers are able to stabilise the area. Considering that the main objective of Postcode Meerkat is to prevent the killing of rhino, the total success of the system has been to effectively prevent 70% of all poachers detected from shooting these animals. The high levels of efficiency can only be obtained by the dedicated work of rangers combined with effective technologies such as this,” says SANParks’ Mark McGill, the Technical Operations Manager on the project.
Research and development
There is no doubt that Postcode Meerkat’s unblinking ability to detect, guide and monitor have greatly contributed to the safety of those tasked to protect South Africa’s iconic wildlife. Since its first deployment, research and development by the CSIR team have advanced the system even further. CSIR radar expert, Andre le Roux, has been involved in the project from inception. He says, “Postcode Meerkat has been constantly improved through new insights gained from the system being deployed in a complex environment, as well as changing operational requirements. We looked at improving the early detection of targets over a vast area, the effective identification of poachers moving amongst a large variety of wild animals and the accurate localisation of suspects.”
During 2018, more sensor systems were deployed significantly increasing the area under surveillance.
“Peace Parks Foundation has had to take a ‘learning by doing approach’ in order to support these types of technological advances where our partners do not have the luxury of long lead times often associated with the traditional development cycles of new technologies and solutions. We are committed to working with SANParks and the CSIR in order to continue the rapid deployment of the solution to ensure that it has the maximum impact on the ground,” says Doug Gillings, Peace Parks Foundation Combatting Wildlife Crime Programme Manager.
On Friday, 16 November 2018, the Postcode Meerkat team was honoured at the prestigious Kudu Awards by receiving the 2017/18 Innovation Award. The Kudus recognise individuals and organisations that significantly contribute to South African National Parks’ operations and effectiveness.