A New Approach to Anti-Rhino Poaching- all you need to know about Welgevonden’s Wildlife Protection Project

Welgevonden Game Reserve is unique in that it collaborates with various external parties to oversee and implement a number of exciting, conservation related research projects.

One such example is the Wildlife Protection Project.

This project aims to utilize the behavioural changes of a set of collared herbivores as a sentinel to detect poaching activity, rhino poaching in particular, within a protected wildlife area.

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Current rhino poaching facts…

Since 2007, the number of rhino poached in South Africa per annum has increased from 13 to a staggering 1 028!

This increase correlates with the high demand for rhino horn in Asian countries where it is wrongly believed to have medicinal properties capable of curing a range of serious medical ailments. In reality, rhino horn consists of nothing more than keratin (the same material that makes up human hair and fingernails). If rhino poaching continues at this rate, it is highly probable that Africa’s rhinos may face extinction in the foreseeable future.

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Although there have been a number of anti-poaching interventions up until now, the number of rhinos poached per annum continues to rise regardless. It is evident that, with the hopes of reducing the current level of rhino poaching, unique and effective anti-poaching techniques need to be explored.

What we’re doing about it…

Recent research conducted by a number of esteemed ecologists from Wageningen University suggests that prey animals are likely to alter their normal behaviour upon hearing, smelling or seeing a potential predation threat. The (currently unpublished) data suggests that the presence of a predator will trigger an immediate response from prey animals, usually causing them to increase their speed and alter their spatial distribution.

Prey density is low in direct surroundings of predators
Prey density is low in direct surroundings of predators (Van Langevelde et al)
Prey runs away after an encounter with predator
Prey runs away after an encounter with predator (Van Langevelde et al)

The fact that animals increase their level of vigilance and flee from an area that poses a potential threat is quite obvious- survival of the fittest right? But this information sparked a very intriguing idea: what if these behavioural responses were not limited to animal predators only? What if these prey species’ responded the same way to a human disturbance within the veld? Is it possible that the animals would also flee from a guide walking with his guests on a bushwalk, or more importantly, a group of poachers on their way to an unsuspecting rhino?

This concept has since fueled the idea of using predictive analytics technologies in an attempt to combat rhino poaching; prey-animal behaviour will be used as a sentinel to detect suspicious human activity within a protected game reserve, making poaching activity so easy to predict that it becomes practically impossible.

How do we know it will work?

In the hopes of proving this concept, the Wildlife Protection Project goes about tracking the movement of a select number of ungulate species. With the exact whereabouts of the rhino kept secret, the analysis focuses on the response of these prey-animals to 5 different human disturbance experimental scenarios within Welgevonden’s 1,200ha breeding camp. These experiments encompass a variety of typical tourist activities within a reserve such as a guided game drive or bush walk, but also test for animal response to more stealthy behaviour such as hunting or hiding in the bush.

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Jasper Eikelboom- Phd Candidate- poses as a poacher during an experiment

In order to collect these movement data, a total of 134 ungulate species were fitted with specially designed animal collars. These collars are embedded with a GPS and an accelerometer that collectively record movement related data and sends them directly to the university via the recently established LoRa network within the Reserve.

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One of the 5 LoRa towers

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Animals are often purchased from game capture companies, and collared while sedated
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A young eland bull is released onto the Reserve after being collared
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International volunteers and vet nurse students are given the opportunity to assist during the collaring process

Human disturbance data is only collected during experimental procedures- participants carry Garmin’s as to determine their own GPS route, and insert the details of their journey onto an electronic tablet. All this information is then sent through to ecologists from Wageningen University who will develop rule based patterns, or algorithms, based on the prey-animal’s response to the various perceived human threats.

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Students from Wageningen assist in conducting a “Guided Bush Walk”

What about practical application?

The model generated from predictable responses of prey-species to various human induced disturbances will highlight any suspicious activity within a reserve. Not only that, but it should also indicate the speed and direction of the disturbance. This preemptive element will improve the efficiency in which anti-poaching units are able to locate, intercept and detain intruders within the reserve, ultimately saving both animal and human lives in the process.

That being said, there is no guarantee that this project will spell the end for rhino poaching in its entirety, but we hope it will make a large impact on the number of rhino poached per annum.

It is projects like these, along with environmental awareness, community involvement, and international cooperation that will eventually put an end to the rhino war.

“I don’t believe that we as humans have the right to destroy, but rather the conscious capacity (and hence responsibility) to preserve and protect the environment. It’s often strange seeing technology being used in wild spaces. I have heard one or two comments stating that technology should be kept out of the bush- often perceived as invasive. But technology is being used to improve every element of human life, why not to protect wildlife?” – Jessica Oosthuyse (Wildlife Protection Project Coordinator)

IBM short clip

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