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World Wildlife Fund Uses RFID to Foil Poachers

A real-time tracking and monitoring solution helps protect endangered rhinos and other animals in Namibia.
By John Edwards
Apr 13, 2014

A rhinoceros horn is worth more than its weight in gold. The horns are highly prized in some Asian countries as a purported medical cure-all. Roughly a third of the world's 5,000 black rhinos and thousands more of the less rare, yet also highly prized, white rhinos reside in the southwestern African nation of Namibia.

In neighboring South Africa, government officials watched helplessly as poachers slaughtered more than 1,000 rhinos last year. Namibia, meanwhile, lost just two of the animals. Much of this success can be attributed to Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), which takes rhino protection very seriously.

With support from the WWF Wildlife Crime Technology Project, the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism has installed a pilot system of ground-based sensors connected by a radio frequency mesh network to successfully relay communications to a central control station for real-time monitoring of key areas. (Photo: Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)
"Over a period of years, MET has been fitting RFID tags within the horns of the majority of the rhinos in their country," says Crawford Allan, leader of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), one of the world's major conservation organizations. "What they have done, in the past, is that they've used cars or static RFID data loggers and only tested rudimentary types of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] to fly over and pick up and read the tag signals."

Now, the WWF is working closely with MET to help it take its surveillance capabilities to a new, stronger level. Supported by a $5 million Google Global Impact award received at the end of 2012, WWF and MET have recently completed testing of a real-time surveillance system designed to stealthily detect poachers before they can kill rhinos. The system, which employs RFID and other cutting-edge tracking and monitoring technologies, also minimizes risk to the park rangers dedicated to protecting these endangered animals.

Many poachers in the North of the country are veterans of military conflicts in Angola and elsewhere, WWF reports, and generally have extensive equipment and supplies. "Poachers were getting really effective at their business," Allan says. "We were looking at ways we could cause them as much trouble as possible."

From the outset, the solution was developed to create a seamless surveillance and communications environment capable of supporting air- and ground-based survey and tracking systems, effective communications for park rangers and the opportunity for immediate site-based data correlation. The project uses many of the latest and most effective surveillance and communication tools, Allan says. "We looked at a number of different technologies over the years and saw how they were advancing," he says.

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