The Meerkat wide area surveillance system is a major force multiplier for the hard working rangers deployed in the Kruger National Park, and since it became operational has been responsible for the arrest of numerous poachers and prevented the killing of dozens of rhinos.
Meerkat was launched in December 2016 and immediately led to the apprehension of poachers in the Park, although it was only officially put into operation at the end of January after completion of the first production model, named the Postcode Meerkat as it was funded by the Netherlands’ People’s Postcode Lottery.
According to Mark McGill, technical operations manager at SANParks, the system is able to deliver real-time actionable intelligence – most of the intelligence the Kruger National Park Mission Area Joint Operations Centre (Majoc) was getting was out of date and not very useful. Now rangers are better able to apprehend poachers before they even kill a rhino. “Every rhino we save is a success,” he said. In the area where the Meerkat system has been operating, not a single rhino has been lost in spite of dozens of poachers infiltrating. According to McGill, the Meerkat system has a 90% arrest success rate.
Meerkat was developed through a partnership between SANParks, Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) using local components. This includes a Reutech RSR 904 ground surveillance radar, which was developed for short-range ground, sea and air surveillance roles and is suitable for the detection of dismounted personnel or vehicles in a ground surveillance role, or for the detection of watercraft or aircraft.
In addition to the radar, Meerkat also includes long-range cameras for night use as well as information analysis software able to detect, track and classify people entering certain areas. The radar is able to detect activity and plot recent and older movement. It can measure the speed of objects and their tracks. Humans are fairly easy to identify, as they generally head in straight lines, for example. An operator in the Majoc control room identifies potentially suspicious behaviour and uses the cameras to zoom in for a closer look. Since the system has both day and thermal cameras for night-time use, McGill says poachers cannot hide. “We own the night with this system.” Poachers have previously enjoyed success in the dark when they have been difficult to spot.
Once poachers have been identified, rangers, often accompanied by dogs, are sent out to intercept the poachers. 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, Peace Parks Foundation said.
For example, on 14 February Meerkat detected 14 poachers in three groups and although no arrests were made, two rifles as well as two sets of poaching equipment were seized and no rhinos were killed.
This is the first time this type of technology has been applied in a counter poaching role in a bushveld environment, Peace Parks said.
The system has been designed to be mobile so it can be rapidly deployed to prevent poaching crisis zones from developing. The Meerkat system can be deployed by a vehicle or slung under a helicopter. It is solar powered, but does have a backup generator that can be remotely controlled if needed.
At present Kruger has one Meerkat system but will acquire three eventually. A second system is on its way and the third will arrive by 2019. As the system is still new, it is undergoing improvements and rangers are refining its integration into Kruger’s reaction force and counter-poaching strategies.
It is hoped the proudly South African system can be exported – McGill says he hopes the system can be sold to other rhino owners.
Meerkat is being used as a major force multiplier in the Kruger, which is the size of Israel and only has around 400 rangers in the field, supported by over 100 soldiers and police, to protect rhinos and other wildlife. Officials estimate they need 2 000 rangers to protect the Kruger National Park, but only have about a quarter of the number at present. Instead, they are using technology like Meerkat as a force multiplier to complement manpower.
Speaking to the media during a recent anti-poaching trip to Skukuza, Thumelo Matjekame, special projects manager at SANParks and the man in charge of counter-poaching activity, said technology is not being used to replace rangers but as an enabler to fight rhino poaching.