The high-tech war on poachers that's trying to save the rhino from extinction

A white rhinoceros in South Africa
A rhinoceros horn, such as this one on a white rhinoceros in South Africa, can fetch up to $80,000/kg on the international black market. Source: SBS/Alyssa Braithwaite

A first-of-its-kind project has reduced rhino poaching by 96 per cent at a South African game reserve.

Inside an office labeled 'War Room' at a private game park in the north-east of South Africa, fatalities and incursions are tallied, tactics are discussed, and enemy intelligence collated.

On the walls are maps covered in pins, and a sign reads: “Rhino carcass free days”, with the current tally at 93 days. 

That almost three months have passed without a rhinoceros death in the reserve , which is adjacent to Kruger National Park, is something to be proud of. Because since 2007, rhino poaching has increased by 9,000 per cent.

In 2014, a staggering 1,215 rhinos were killed – or more than three every day. In 2015, that was reduced slightly to 1,175. This year, to date, more than 850 have been poached.

Rhino horn can fetch up to $80,000 per kilogram on the international black market from buyers in China and Vietnam

The park's head of security, Endri Steyn, is ex-military, and has spent the past four years trying to curb poaching. 

"It's a war zone," Steyn tells SBS. 

" about 1,100 active poaching syndicates or groups actively against us. They use high-powered rifles - 458s, 375s, 303s, 306s ... in the Kruger they were using AK-47s, and they are using pistols and whatever means necessary. 

"So we issued our people with R1 rifles." But not bulletproof vests, because when faced with such high-calibre rifles, there's no point. "It's life and death," Steyn says.

Two rhinos
Reactive solutions to rhino poaching, such as inserting tracking sensors into the horn, are intrusive and stress the animal.
SBS/Alyssa Braithwaite

Currently, South Africa is home to 24,000 rhinos - 21,000 white rhinos and 3,000 black rhinos - which makes up 70 per cent of the world's rhinoceroses. But if poaching continues at the current rate, rhinos would be wiped out in South Africa by 2025. 

It was something wildlife lover and Dimension Data executive Bruce 'Doc' Watson couldn't sit by and watch happen. 

"From an early age, I’ve been passionate about wildlife – it’s always been part of my life," Watson says. "With rhino poaching in South Africa at a crisis point, we wanted to help before the species disappeared altogether."

Dimension Data, a South African technology company, and American IT leader Cisco Systems have partnered on a project called Connected Conservation, designed to stop poachers from entering the reserve, before the even have a chance to kill an animal. 

"While there had been great initiatives to protect the rhino over the years which were reactive, the number of these animals being killed was increasing at an alarming rate."

Traditional "reactive" methods to reduce poaching are often invasive, such as tranquillising the rhino to insert tracking sensors in its horn and under its skin, or removing its horn completely.

Tranquillising a rhino can make it blind or lame as a result of the drugs used; and removing a rhino's horn deprives it of a tool for defence or attracting mates.

Connected Conservation tracks people, rather than animals.

Phase one of the pilot project started in January 2015, using technology such as thermal imaging, CCTV, biometric scanning, analysis of real-time data to track and monitor visitors to the park.

Phase two, which is currently being rolled out, adds drone cameras in the sky and seismic sensors around the perimeter that can differentiate between vehicles and animals.

Equipped with wifi-connected iPads, the rangers can now respond to alerts anywhere in the reserve and a helicopter will reach the location within 7 to 8 minutes - fast enough to hopefully prevent a rhino death and catch the poacher. 

Phase one has already been declared a success, with a 96 per cent reduction in rhino poaching in the game park.

Rhino horn poachers captured on thermal imaging camera
Two rhino horn poachers are captured on a thermal imaging camera climbling over an electric fence to escape before rangers arrive.
SBS/Alyssa Braithwaite

"You will never be able to have zero lives lost. You'll never have that. The odds are just too big against us. My aim is to bring that down to as little as possible," Steyn says.

"At the end of the day if there's no rhino left, then it's going to have a huge effect on the commercial interest, because then they can't sell the 'big five' (rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards and buffalo) to tourists."

Watson hopes to take his Connected Conservation model worldwide, and has already been approached by New Zealand about trying to protect the orca and the southern right whale.

"We are setting up a solution here that is a replicable model throughout the globe," he says. "We want to put this solution into all private reserves and national parks in South Africa. We want to then take it north of our border, and go into places like Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania. We want to extend it for rhino, for the elephant, for lion and the pangolin.

"Then we want to take it into India and Asia, in terms of the tigers, and we also want to take it into the ocean for the sea rays, the whales and the sharks. The plan is to really go big on this."  

Sniffer dog checks a car for guns, ammunition, rhino horn or ivory in South Africa
A sniffer dog checks a vehicle for guns, ammunition, rhino horn or ivory at a game park in South Africa.
SBS/Alyssa Braithwaite

The author travelled to South Africa as a guest of Dimension Data.