Kruger National Park in South Africa is a key homeland for wild rhino. Alas, all too often, these amazing creatures are not alone in their natural habitat, and are being stalked - by poachers. Groups of poachers move silently through the night, armed with rifles and cutting tools. They have one simple, brutal goal – to kill the rhino and take their precious horns. And in the vastness of a 2 million hectare park, they can be hard to spot and stop.
However, a major new technical breakthrough is now helping counter-poaching efforts. A new wide-area surveillance technology which uses specialised long-range optics has been developed. This innovative system – created through a partnership between South African National Parks, Peace Parks Foundation and South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – was officially put into operation in January.
The first production model of this new surveillance tool was funded by players of People's Postcode Lottery. The technology has been called the Postcode Meerkat. During its first two weeks of operation, the Postcode Meerkat was used to successfully stop attacks by five poaching groups, leading to arrests. On Valentine's Day, whilst the rest of the world enjoyed time with their loved ones, Kruger National Park rangers spent the night protecting the wildlife they hold dear. That evening, the Postcode Meerkat detected three separate groups - an alarming 14 poachers in total - moving into the rhino heartland from different directions. Through coordinated operations, the activities of all three groups were disrupted, and rifles and sets of poaching equipment were retrieved. Although no arrests were made on this occasion, if the Meerkat had not been monitoring that night, four to eight rhino would likely have been killed.
This is the first time that this kind of technology has been 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 gives early warnings which allow rapid responses from rangers inside the park. This will support the proactive apprehension of poachers, which could save the lives of both humans and animals. The system has also been designed to be mobile so can be deployed to prevent poaching crisis zones developing.
The current system - although operational and well proving its worth - is still in a development phase. Efforts are ongoing to optimize and expand its functionality, as well as to fine tune the way in which the system is integrated into Kruger National Park's reaction force and counter-poaching strategies. Thanks to all our players for their support in making vital projects like the Postcode Meerkat happen. Your help and generosity is saving the lives of these majestic wild animals.