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Feature: Hluhluwe iMfolozi to be South Africa’s first “Smart Park”

Hluhluwe to be a smart parkKwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP) is often referred to as the “birthplace of rhino” in reference to conservation efforts there some 50 years ago which saw the white rhino saved from local extinction.

The wheel has – and is – turning with the flagship reserve under the stewardship of provincial conservation agency, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, experiencing a significant increase in rhino poaching in recent months.

As custodian of key white and black rhino populations, Ezemvelo has been protecting these species and much of South Africa’s natural heritage for decades. The shift in focus by organised crime and wildlife trafficking syndicates has resulted in pressure being exerted on the provincial conservation agency. While Ezemvelo could forecast a potential displacement of poaching from other areas and prepare accordingly, the intensity at which KwaZulu-Natal, and specifically HiP, has been targeted over the past year, could not be predicted, the Peace Parks Foundation (PFF) says.

The men and women of HiP are fighting for the lives of animals and their colleagues. Rangers are on patrol day and night, responding to alerts and proactively creating a safety barrier between rhino and potential intruders. Nights are spent in the bush, double shifts worked, with many not seeing families for weeks on end, PFF says.

In control rooms, rotating shifts of support teams to rangers have eyes on screens and ears in radio communications 24/7 - collaborating with provincial law enforcement units and supported by the SA Police Service. Emotions run high and speaking to the staff on the ground one sees anger, sadness and desperation expressed about the attack on “their wildlife, their park and their livelihood”.

While field staff man the front line, the increase in rhino poaching has kept Ezemvelo management busy developing more effective anti-poaching and resource management strategies.

Lessons learnt on home ground and taking from approaches successfully implemented by other conservation agencies has identified tactics that will form the focus of resources and time over the next few years, according to Peace Parks.

Three particular areas have been identified.

Implement intensive protect zone strategies to more efficiently patrol hotspots and protect core rhino populations in the public conservation space Ezemvelo is responsible for.

Secondly, significant effort will go into structures and systems to solidify joint operation initiatives with national and provincial law enforcement, private rhino owners and other conservation agencies, such as SANParks. Peace Parks notes that illicit rhino trafficking syndicates have no regard for national, provincial or other boundaries, and it is critical anti-poaching and counter-trafficking operations be aligned across agencies and geographical regions.

Finally, technology will be put to use as a force multiplier for both detection and response. This will put Ezemvelo a step ahead of poachers and see effective and rapid mobilisation of available resources as well as keeping field staff safe.

This has seen Ezemvelo join hands with the Peace Parks Foundation in evolving HiP into a “Smart Park”. A memorandum of understanding between the organisations commits the Stellenbosch-headquartered NGO to a R10.6 million involvement in turning HiP into South Africa’s first “Smart Park” as part of the rhino protection programme.

The “Smart Park” development entails deployment 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 HiP. 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 – are some of the data sources to become a unified technology ecosystem. The smart park will also include a Low Power Wide Area Network (LoRaWaN) with world class internet connectivity for the integration of smart sensors and speedy transmission of data.

This approach not only relates to developing a Smart Park with greater real-time wide area situational awareness, it also focusses on putting in place a central command and control system for the anti-poaching unit, PFF says. All data collected will be packaged and presented to this central command through a single, simple web-based application, where artificial intelligence will also be applied to interpret and analyse the data, allowing for quick decision-making and effective tactical planning. Central command will be headed by an operations manager who will ensure the new technologies are integrated into daily anti-poaching operations and who will guide reaction force tactics - bridging the “people/technology” divide.

Minister Edna Molewa’s Department of Environmental Affairs does not issue monthly updates on rhino kill or suspected poacher arrests with these supposedly coming quarterly. The last official figure available is for July which shows a national loss of more than 500 rhino. No provincial breakdown is given but Ezemvelo official and management are being increasingly targeted by poachers.