The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 Oct 2022
Kruger National Park, South Africa – A group of three poachers move silently through the bushveld, hidden from the naked eye by the darkness of night. Armed with a rifle and carrying a grim collection of hacking and cutting tools, they have but one goal – to kill yet another one of Africa’s iconic rhinos for its horn. They move quickly, yet with confidence that the vastness of the quiet park will allow them free reign to complete their task undisturbed.
However, unbeknown to these wildlife criminals, the South African National Parks (SANParks) counter-poaching night-watch – sitting many kilometers away – has been closely watching them as they traverse the protected area. With the use of new wide area surveillance technology and specialised long range optics installed in the so-called Meerkat system, poachers no longer have the luxury of relying on invisibility as they illegally enter South Africa’s primary rhino stronghold.
A SANParks Special Ranger response unit is quickly mobilised to intercept the trespassers, and the team members focus all their energy on ensuring a zero-harm intervention. Once again the Meerkat is utilised, this time to safely direct the response team as they inch closer and closer to a potentially dangerous encounter with the armed poachers. Guided by the “angel on their shoulder”, the rangers manage to catch the poachers off-guard, arrest them and confiscate valuable firearms and tools. At least on this night, thanks to the Meerkat and the dedicated ranger teams, no human or animal lives were lost.
This is a scenario that plays out in Kruger National Park night after night. The innovative Meerkat wide area surveillance system – developed through a partnership between SANParks, Peace Parks Foundation and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – was officially put into operations at the end of January 2017, following completion of the first production model, aptly named the Postcode Meerkat, as it was funded by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery . During the first two weeks of operation alone, the system was successfully used to thwart the efforts of five of nine detected poaching groups, with five poachers apprehended and arrested.
On Valentine’s Day, while the rest of the country enjoyed time with their loved ones, Kruger rangers spent the night protecting the wildlife they hold dear. On that frightful evening the Postcode Meerkat detected three separate groups – an alarming number of 14 poachers in total – moving into the rhino heartland from different directions. Through coordinated operations the activities of all three groups were disrupted, and two rifles as well as two sets of poaching equipment retrieved. Although no arrests were made, it can be said with confidence that if the Meerkat was not operational on this night, anything between four to eight (or more) rhino may have been killed.
In another case the fleeing poachers were observed by the Postcode Meerkat during the course of the night, enabling rangers to track, find and arrest the two poachers the following day.
This is the first time that this kind of technology is being applied in a counter-poaching role in a bushveld environment, which makes the system unique. Smart thinking in its development allows it to differentiate between humans and animals, while its application will guarantee early warning and rapid response capabilities. This will augment ranger reaction times, allow for better preparation and support the proactive apprehension of poachers, which could save the lives of both humans and animals. In addition, the system has been designed to be mobile so that it can be rapidly deployed to prevent poaching crisis zones from developing.
The current system – although operational and already proving its worth – is still in a development phase with efforts ongoing to optimise and expand functionality as well as to refine the manner in which the system is integrated into Kruger National Park’s reaction force and counter-poaching strategies. Research and development of the wide area surveillance system, as well as the production of the initial prototype, was funded jointly by SANParks, CSIR and Peace Parks Foundation – as part of the Dutch Postcode Lottery’s support to the Rhino Protection Programme. Funding for the production and deployment of the first production system was secured thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.