On the hunt for counter-poaching technology


Retired South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Major General Johan Jooste used the recent Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) 2022 exhibition in Pretoria to help find the best equipment that can be deployed to combat wildlife crime as he prepares to spend the R400 million in donor funding that he has raised to fight rhino-poaching in South Africa.

Jooste recently co-authored with best-selling author Tony Parks a book entitled Rhino War. The book tells of the three years he spent fighting what appeared to be an unwinnable war against wildlife poachers.

His success in the Kruger National Park led to another assignment, working now for the Peace Parks Foundation as its law enforcement and security project manager seconded to the Department of Environmental Affairs.

“Technology is vital in this war against poaching,” he said. “When I joined more than 10 years ago, the mood was shoot to kill, hot pursuit and build a wall, but we who have been to war know that that is futile. I did the opposite.”

There was an understanding that technology would be vital in the war against poaching when he began work at the Kruger ten years ago, but not strategy.

“I spent time in the Army as Director of Infantry and latterly Director of Projects, plus I have an MBA, so I understand how to get the best minds in the room and develop strategies. I’ve always lived under the mantra: ‘think big, start small and act now’. We didn’t have a choice, poachers were killing three rhinos a day, every day, in the Kruger.”

Working with retired SANDF colonel Chris Serfontein from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who he had met on the steps of the church they both attended, shortly after taking the Kruger National Park assignment, Jooste wanted to develop a new anti-poaching technology roadmap.

It was key though that the technology would have to be human friendly and user friendly.

“Technology makes things possible, but only humans make it work, plus the rangers need their own slice of the fourth industrial revolution,” he said.

The problem was there was no money. Undeterred, he got the researchers to start working on a technological blueprint for the future and then he went out to raise the money. The CSIR in the meantime has developed the homegrown Meerkat wide area surveillance system, which Jooste hopes could evolve into a more mobile system and even be utilised in the form an aerostat, tethered to a truck and moved around parks.

But Jooste wanted to know more about technology and see the latest developments in the field from across the world, which is why he attended AAD 2022. “I have to educate myself, so that we spend wisely and give direction to the developers to achieve exactly what is that we need.”

He told defenceWeb he learnt a lot in the Kruger, chief among which is that not all technology works in different situations and that whatever is chosen has to be sustainable and properly maintained.

“Wildlife guardians need to be wary of the competing pressures of industry push and donor pull, forcing new technology on customers for the sake of sales and NGOs being seduced by the bells and whistles of new technology.”

The best example of this was the initial introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the Kruger, which many had thought would be the magic answer to the scourge of poachers and spawned a ‘drone fever’ at the time. However, UAVs were limited by range, weather, and poor commercial electro-optical systems mounted on small airframes.

“There is and will be a role for drones, as their range and payload capacity improve, but in Kruger we found that a ground-based radar system, Project Meerkat, was the best solution for detecting and monitoring incursions by poachers.”

“The rangers of the near future will be even better connected, wearing ‘smart’ lightweight body armour fitted with sensors; heads up displays delivering information via glass monocles; smart watches and arm-mounted satellite devices; and effective but non-lethal weapons.

“We could even see rangers riding silently through the bush on electric bikes, or flying in individual Personal Aviation Vehicles, skimming across the bush at treetop level. The sky literally is the limit when it comes to protecting rhinos, with satellites, aircraft balloons and flying rangers all conceivable weapons in the war against poaching.”

At AAD 2022 Jooste was impressed with what he saw regarding the development of various sensors. His view is for a series of sensors that could be mounted on fences or infrastructure, on dogs, on rangers or planted in the ground that would create unparalleled situational awareness.

The information would always feed into a Joint Operational Command Centre like the one he established at Skukuza in Mpumalanga and in turn be fed through to co-ordinated response teams of rangers, law enforcement agencies and even the military, to apprehend and stop the poachers before they can go in for the kill.