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IoT promises to save the rhinos

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South African rhinos have been the focus of a number of initiatives intended to stop the high levels of poaching and save as many of the animals as possible. Many of these, however, are centred around de-horning rhinos or increasing surveillance in nature reserves, and have made only a small impact.

A recent pilot project at the Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo, however, promises to not only increase the chances of arresting poachers, but to change the way game farms are run. IBM, in collaboration with MTN and the Wageningen University (WU) in the Netherlands, have been using the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve conservation efforts, specifically focusing on the poaching problem.

The IOT platform, called the MTN Connected Wildlife Solution, has been in pilot phase for the past 23 months, and is showing promising results. Collars for prey animals that graze close to rhino have been introduced, and data about their behaviour has been collected. Using these smart collars containing custom sensors on animals such as zebra, wildebeest, eland and impala, the project has been able to provide an early warning system if poachers are nearby.

These animals react in different ways to different threats, and the project has collected location information, movement, direction, and average speed of travel, along with rule-based patterns based on the animals’ response to threats. The data gets picked up by MTN’s network, sent to a satellite and analysed in the cloud where it can be accessed through a mobile application As a result, the response patterns of the animals have allowed game rangers to take pre-emptive action before any threat happens.

Through IBM's Watson IOT platform and predictive analytics, the Welgevonden Game Reserve is able to monitor the data over a wide range. Initial results show how animal behaviour changes during a full moon, providing clear danger signals in a breeding camp where no predators were known to hunt. It was subsequently determined that a leopard was on the prowl, leading to the change in behaviour. The data has also informed the team of the very different reactions of the animals to a ranger vehicle approaching compared a predator.

It is hoped that the pilot phase of the project will drive a bigger roll-out around South Africa in the next few months, and MTN has stated that the collars will be introduced in the other African countries where MTN operates at a later stage. According to the project partners, the collars provide an affordable and easily duplicated solution, with only a mobile phone needed to detect a potential poaching situation.

Using the IoT in similar conservation initiatives promises to fundamentally change the rates at which animals are being threatened. With more than 1 000 rhinos having been slaughtered each year since 2013 in South Africa alone, according to Save the Rhino International, this project is providing a real hope that these numbers can be dramatically reduced – and that these majestic animals can be saved from extinction.

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