By Lise-Marie Greeff-Villet
Kruger National Park, South Africa – A group of three poachers move silently through the bushveld, hidden from the naked eye by the darkness of night. Armed with a rifle and carrying a grim 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 park will allow them free reign to complete their task undisturbed.
However, unbeknown to these wildlife criminals, the South African National Parks (SANParks) counter-poaching night watch – sitting many kilometers 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 a system called Meerkat, poachers can no longer depend on the cloak of darkness as they illegally enter South Africa’s primary rhino stronghold.
An order is given to mobilize a SANParks Special Ranger response unit to intercept the intruders, and the team focuses all its energy on ensuring a zero-injury intervention. Meerkat is deployed to safely direct the response team into a potentially dangerous encounter with the armed poachers. Guided by the system that acts as an “angel on their shoulder”, the rangers are able to catch the poachers off-guard, arrest them and confiscate valuable fire-arms and tools. At least on this night, thanks to Meerkat and the dedicated ranger teams, no human or animal lives were lost.
This scenario plays out in Kruger National Park night after night. The innovative Meerkat wide-area surveillance system – developed through a partnership between SANParks, Peace Parks Foundation and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – was officially put into operation at the end of January 2017, following completion of the first production model, aptly named the Postcode Meerkat, as it was funded by the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery. During the first two weeks of operation, the system was used successfully to foil the efforts of five of nine detected poaching groups, with five poachers apprehended.
On Valentine’s Day, while the rest of South Africa enjoyed an evening with loved ones, Kruger rangers spent the night protecting the wildlife they hold dear. Postcode Meerkat detected three separate groups of intruders — an alarming number of 14 poachers in total — moving into the rhino heartland from different directions. Through coordinated operations, the activities of all three groups were disrupted, and two rifles as well as two sets of poaching equipment were confiscated. None of the intruders was arrested, but perhaps as many as half dozen rhinos were likely spared a gruesome death, thanks to Meerkat’s watchful eye.
In a separate incident, fleeing poachers were observed by Postcode Meerkat during the course of the night, enabling rangers to track, find and arrest two suspects the following day.
This is the first time that this kind of technology is being applied in a counter-poaching role in a bushveld environment, which makes the system unique. Smart thinking in its development allows it to differentiate between humans and animals. The system provides early warning and rapid response capabilities, that will improve ranger reaction times, allow for better preparation, and support the proactive apprehension of poachers, which could save the lives of both humans and animals. The system is mobile so that it can be rapidly deployed to prevent poaching crisis zones from developing.
Although operational and already proving its worth, Meerkat. Its developers continuetooptimize and expand the systems’ functions as well as fine-tune its integration into Kruger National Park’s reaction force and counter- poaching strategies.
Research and development of the Meerkat wide area surveillance system, as well as the production of the initial prototype, was funded jointly by SANParks, CSIR and Peace Parks Foundation – as part of the Dutch Postcode Lot- tery’s support of the Rhino Protection Programme. Funding for the production and deployment of the first production system was secured thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
Lise-Marie Greeff-Villet is the Communications Coordinator for the Peace Parks Foundation.
The Peace Parks Foundation facilitates the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas (peace parks)and develops human resources, thereby supporting sustainable economic development, the conservation of biodiversity and regional peace and stability.