protecting black rhinos

The Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary inside the Tsavo National Park in southern Kenya is home to some of Kenya’s few remaining black rhinos. The park’s rangers struggle to detect all the poachers moving around in the area. Poaching is a profitable activity; criminal gangs sell rhino horn for up to USD50,000 a kilo (roughly SEK425,000). In the 1970s there were 20,000 black rhinos in Kenya, whereas today there are only about 650. And 65 of these live in the Ngulia area.

Project Ngulia was launched in 2013 to prevent the species’ extinction (see fact box). The project is testing how security technology can help to enhance surveillance in an area where animals are threatened with extinction. The surveillance system consists of cameras, sensors and radars situated in the area. The park rangers receive reports on the tracking of animal movements and poachers via computer or smartphone/tablet. The data is gathered and processed either in a control centre or by mobile units, and, depending on requirements, the rangers also have access to satellite and VHF communication. If a risk situation occurs or human movements are identified, the park rangers are notified.

Saab has been involved in the preparatory work and implementation of the overall concept. The project’s communication application and radar technology were tested at Kolmården Wildlife Park in Sweden last year. Further tests have been carried out on-site in Ngulia with the aid of about 50 park rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service. The move from handwritten reports to applications in smartphones has been a major improvement.

“Our experience has been extremely positive so far,” says Michael Mohr, who works in Public Affairs at Saab. “We have already been able to significantly improve the surveillance.”

The tracking and positioning system is being developed by Saab Grintek Defence in South Africa. Mike Hartley, who is managing the system development project, explains that the GPS technology used provides very accurate data. “By using GPS we receive frequent, precise updates on the movements of the animals.”

The technology will also be used to measure the animals’ temperatures and heart rates to provide a remote assessment of their health. “Traditionally you track temperature and movements to determine whether an animal is alive,” says Hartley. “But we consider measuring the heart rate to be the surest method. The temperature measurements are instead used to summon help in time to deal with an injury or infection, to make sure that the animal survives.”

The system that measures the heart rate is currently being upgraded, and at the same time Saab is working to increase the battery service life.

During 2016 several sensor systems will be installed, and there are plans to set up TV cameras at watering holes and to use a ground radar system to detect people and vehicles at remote locations. At a later stage, relatively simple drones may be tested to provide further checks on movement information.

When the project is fully operational, the hope is to scale up the operation and replicate it in other animal sanctuaries around the world. Mohr thinks that Project Ngulia is an example of the way in which high-technology industry can help developing countries to deal with a significant transnational threat. In the case of Kenya, it isn’t just the species that is affected but also tourism, which currently accounts for 15 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Mohr sees opportunities for Saab to further develop its business offering: “I wonder, in particular, whether we can make a tangible contribution to the protection of key infrastructure through the surveillance of airports and ports, for example.” 

Text Ylva Carlss on Photo Getty images