A group of three poachers move silently through the bush, hidden from the naked eye by the night. Armed with a rifle and carrying a collection of hacking and cutting tools, they have but one goal – to kill yet another of Africa’s iconic rhinos for its horn. They move quickly, yet with confidence that the vastness of the quiet reserve will allow them free rein to complete their task undisturbed.
However, unbeknown to the wildlife criminals, SANParks counter-poaching night watch – sitting many kilometres 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 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 speedily mobilised to intercept the trespassers and the team focuses on ensuring a zero harm intervention. 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 catch the poachers off-guard, arrest them and confiscate firearms and tools. At least on this night, thanks to Meerkat and the dedicated ranger teams, no human or animal lives were lost, according to the Peace Parks Foundation.
This is a scenario that plays out in Kruger National Park night after night. The Meerkat wide area surveillance system – developed through a partnership between SANParks, Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – was officially put into operation at the end of January following completion of the first production model, named the Postcode Meerkat, as it was funded by People’s Postcode Lottery players.
During the first two weeks of operation the system thwarted the efforts of five of nine detected poaching groups, with five suspected poachers apprehended and arrested.
On Valentine’s Day Kruger rangers spent the night protecting wildlife. That evening the Postcode Meerkat detected three separate groups – 14 poachers in total – moving into the rhino heartland from different directions. Through co-ordinated operations the activities of all three groups were disrupted and two rifles as well as two sets of poaching equipment seized. Although no arrests were made, it can be said with confidence if the Meerkat had not been operational, four to eight or more rhino could have been killed, according to the Peace Parks Foundation.
In another case fleeing poachers were observed by the Postcode Meerkat during the course of the night, enabling rangers to track, find and arrest two suspected poachers the following day.
This is the first time this type of technology has been applied in a counter poaching role in a bushveld environment, Peace Parks said. Smart thinking in its development allows it to differentiate between humans and animals, while its application guarantees early warning and rapid response capabilities. This will augment ranger reaction times, allow for better preparation and support proactive apprehension of poachers and suspected poachers, saving human and animal lives. The system has been designed to be mobile so 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 the development phase with efforts ongoing to optimise and expand functionality as well as to refine its integration into Kruger’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 PPF – as part of the Dutch Postcode Lottery’s support to the Rhino Protection Programme. Funding for production and deployment of the first production system was secured thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery in the Netherlands.