LoRaWAN Helps Rhino Conservation Efforts in South Africa

Published: March 11, 2024

Since the technology was deployed a year ago, 16 arrests have been made when a rhino has been at risk

Conservationists in South Africa have been taking a wide scale approach to rewilding its countryside and preserving endangered species in its parks. Efforts to ensure that wildlife such as wild dogs and rhinos are protected include community education, hiring of park rangers, and government support.

Another pillar in the conservation effort is technology, to bring visibility into what’s happening in the park.

Madikwe Game Reserve is using all the resources available—including a combination of satellite imagery and a LoRaWAN network—so that authorities know when animals are at risk, and when the threat of poaching or approaching event has occurred.

The effort is part of a technology collaboration between Madikwe Futures, Connected Conservation Foundation (CCF), Actility, Cisco and Airbus Foundation, to leverage a private LoRaWAN network and Airbus’ Pléiades Neo satellite imagery.

The results can be found in the numbers: 16 arrests have occurred since the technology was installed as conservationists aim to reduce or eliminate poachings of rhinos for their horns, as well as protecting other wildlife.

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Installing a LoRa Network

Installation of the LoRa network gateways and application of sensor-based trackers started in 2021. Since then, Madikwe Game Reserve has expanded the number of sensors in use, while also introducing satellite imagery.

“We’re really now trying to look at a 360-degree holistic view of [the park] for protection and restoration,” said Sophie Maxwell, CCF’s executive director.

The technology includes LoRaWAN gateways provided by Cisco, across about half of the park, and sensors on the vehicles, people and dogs.

The tags transmit their unique ID at low power and long range to the gateways, with the software then identifying the tag and its location. With the addition of satellite imagery, the software offers a view from above into what is happening at the park. Those images can be paired with the LoRa reading as well for contextual data.

750 Square Kilometers of Natural Habitat

Madikwe Game Reserve opened in 1994 as a protected area in South Africa, comprised of 750 square kilometers of bushland. The site is home to all the major African species—lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes, antelopes and both white and black rhinos.

The Madikwe park already serves as a success story when it comes to wildlife restoration. The park collaborates with local farmers and the community to create a symbiotic relationship on the Marico River Basin.

It employs thousands of workers and has built a tourism and nature based economy in the area, said Maxwell. The park has reintroduced species as part of what it called Operation Phoenix and has seen endangered species growing, especially the African Wild Dog.

Fighting Poaching

“The challenge now is rhino poaching which is a threatened everything they’ve built.” Maxwell said.

In fact, there were 231 rhinos poached in the last six months across South Africa, (the typically average is 250 poached rhinos per year). According to the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), 499 rhinos were illegally killed across the country in 2023.

“This figure represents a worrying increase of over 10 percent against 2022’s poaching losses,” she said.

Technology Keeping an Eye Out

Madikwe created an operations room where officials can get a wide-angle view of what is happening in the park. The technology team installed thermal cameras around the fence lines that bring real-time information back to officers tracking park security.

The LoRaWAN network covers poaching hotspots. In that way,  “you can actually focus the resources and allocation of effort in the areas that that are most needed,” said Maxwell.

High resolution satellite images capture the entire park including the unpatrolled and unsurveyed areas.

Rangers, vehicles and some animals carry LoRaWAN tags. The rhinos are not tagged, however, as the park aims to keep rhinos invisible to the technology and ensure the location information is not used by a bad actor who may be working for the park.

“It’s much better for the rhinos to be difficult to find,” Maxwell said.

LoRaWAN Tracks Movement of People, Dogs

However the system can identify when rhinos could be in trouble, by tracking activity of dogs, people and vehicles around them.

As rangers and other employees move around the park, the tracker on their vehicle dashboard, or worn on their uniforms, transmits at regular intervals to provide a view of where they are. That data not only helps understand when an activity of concern could be taking place, but to provide accountability related to the work being done.

Wild dogs, an endangered species, wear sensors for two reasons. The first is for their safetyKnowing wildlife movements helps conservation teams understand their rangelands so they can be protected. Officers can make sure the tourists don’t impact their strongholds, and ensure that the canines have space needed to breed and roam.

In fact, the African Wild Dog is one of the most endangered carnivores in the world. There are two packs of these wild dogs in Madikwe. The alpha pairs in each pack—the dominant male and female —are wearing satellite collars provided by the North West Parks and Tourism Board as part of a separate project.

Secondly, the dogs are scavengers and tracking their movement can help detect carcasses, which could indicate a poacher.

Following the Dogs in Pursuit

Additionally, the park employs domesticated dogs that are trained to pursue poachers. One of these dogs is wearing a LoRa tracking device on its collar.

As the dog (working with a handler) chases after the scent of a poacher in the park, its location can be tracked. The system will indicate the trajectory of poacher movement based on the direction of the dog.

“We’ve had cases whereby the dogs have gone after the poachers and then you’re able to direct a secondary anti poaching unit based on the trajectory of travel of the dog,” said Maxwell. The tracking helps officers locate and stop those poachers before they leave the reserve.

The technology also helps park management identify when dogs are slowing, due to fatigue, so they can be replaced if necessary by another dog. The satellite imagery can be paired with that data.

“This suite of technologies working together can give you the data that will inform your response, inform your reallocation of resources and your security teams,” according to Maxwell.

Gaining a More Universal View

This tech-savvy approach has enabled Madikwe Game Reserve to revolutionize wildlife protection, said Alper Yegin, Actility’s CTO. It is part of a continent-wide effort to protect Africa’s wildlife. Madikwe is just one of numerous parks across South Africa and neighboring countries leveraging LoRa technology.

In the future, Actility may offer a new feature in its network platform that could allow users to track assets between parks and between private and public networks. In that case, parks could better unify their efforts.

For now, said Yegen, Madikwe has been able to expand its technology deployment into the sky with satellite network as well as reaching more terrestrial trackers in its LoRa network as more animals and vehicles are tagged.

Maxwell spoke at the United Nations in New York on March 4, coinciding with World Wildlife Day, to share the CCF’s efforts in African species protections, and how it is using technology to help meet conservation targets set by the UN.

Key Takeaways:
  • Actility’s LoRaWAN network spans 22 conservancies and four reserves, to protect wildlife by capturing data about the movements of rhinos, vehicles and livestock.
  • In the long term, the technology could  further reduce the risk of poaching in the Matikwe Game Reserve.