War against rhino poaching intensifies as CSIR joins the fray

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From now on the feet on the ground and eyes in the sky that have led the national anti-rhino poaching initiative have a high technology partner in the form of the CSIR.

The country’s leading research and development organisation will take on the role of technology capability provider to SANParks at strategic, tactical and operational levels in terms of a partnership agreement.

This development is in line with the thinking of the man in charge of the national environmental agency’s special projects, of which stopping the wholesale slaughter of rhino is top of the list.

Retired SA Army major general Johan Jooste said in support of the agreement: “We are facing a battle at present and need to respond deftly and with the best possible means we have. We are therefore taking a long term strategic view on increasing the effectiveness of environmental asset protection interventions at national parks across the country.
“We need to bring together the many departments and agencies with mandates in this field at the highest level and get cohesion and consistency in how best we work together.”

With 688 rhino already killed for their horn this year – 20 more than last year’s all time high there is a need for more co-ordinated action across the conservation and law enforcement front.

This is what Jooste sees the CSIR partnership doing at first involving the expertise of defence science and engineering teams working with specialised local military, security and intelligence organisations. CSIR environmental, building and even transport specialists will be involved in later stages of the partnership.

CSIR programme manager Charl Petzer said the research and development organisation’s main role will be to act as strategic research and technology advisor to SANParks.
“We will be assisting SANParks from strategic and planning levels through to tactical issues such as technology evaluation and testing to identify the best technologies to use for sensing, detecting, mobility and so forth.
“Operationally we need to understand how to manage the life cycle of the resources they have and optimise capabilities to be fit for the challenges they face.
“For example, we could establish operations rooms for real-time surveillance, national command centres where all law enforcement agencies and departments can work together on environmental asset protection – not just rhino horn but also better border control to counter various types of smuggling.
“As examples, we are currently evaluating different stealth technologies to detect human movement across border zones, as well as means of detecting the location of a shooter within seconds. Better sensor technologies are also looked at to add to surveillance capabilities at poaching hot spots,” he said.

The immediate focus of the five year agreement is the Kruger National Park where 418 rhinos have been killed to date this year.
“We have many years of experience in safety and security – mainly for the military, some of it covert and all with a strong research and engineering core. Part of our work will be to set up proof of concept designs to be put through rigorous testing. We do not put out protective technologies without testing if and how they can be breached,” Petzer said.

On the challenges facing the anti-poaching brigade at tactical level Jooste said the publicity given to rhino poaching has led to “a host of solutions and tools offered to us by various vendors. We need a strategically independent technology agency to help us identify what the best tools and tactics are for us to use”.
“Also, as the media reports on counter-poaching approaches, perpetrators change tactics. They switch to other commodities – say from rhino horn to drugs – for a cooling down period or to other modes of operation. For this reason, we will not release details regarding the projects we do with the CSIR. We need virtual ‘in-house’ technologists ready to help us respond with speed and agility to whatever new schemes we need to counter.”

SA National Defence Force (SANDF) elements involved in anti-poaching operations include an army detachment and SA Air Force aerial platforms using for surveillance and tracking. The defence industry, via Denel and the Paramount Group, has assisted with the deployment of a Seeker UAV and a Seabird Seeker reconnaissance aircraft to track suspected poachers.