It’s four o’clock in the morning and the cold, dry desert air offers a jolt to a team of conservationists, wildlife managers and technology experts gathered in Namibia’s Waterberg Plateau Park. They are testing a suite of integrated technologies in an effort to protect threatened wildlife—including rhinos, elephants and other iconic species. About a year ago, WWF received a Google Global Impact Award grant to launch WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project. Today, the project is literally taking flight.
More than one company specializing in development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, including Falcon UAV, is on hand for field demonstrations. In this pre-dawn test, Falcon UAV CEO Chris Miser uses a bungee cord to catapult what looks like an oversized model airplane into the dark sky. Within seconds, the little plane has disappeared, controlled by its programmed flight plan and a laptop propped on the hood of a four-wheel drive truck. This amazing object fits into a carry bag and can be launched from nearly anywhere. Once it’s flown its mission, it will float back to a designated spot on the ground via its own small orange parachute.
WWF project leader Crawford Allan and other WWF staff worked with WWF-Namibia and Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism to arrange the field tests that integrate a network of technologies. Aimed at reducing poaching and minimizing risks to field staff on the ground, these technologies include Unmanned Aerial Systems, ground-based sensors connected by a radio network, wildlife and patrol tracking devices, and the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) enforcement software.
A silent eye in the sky, unmanned aircraft deployed with high-resolution night vision and daylight cameras wirelessly send real-time video footage from the air into a central command center combined with other surveillance streams. The system includes remote day/night vision video cameras at waterholes and other sites where wildlife gather. Unmanned aircraft are the latest tool to prevent wildlife crime from taking a foothold, as poaching outside Namibia’s borders reaches historic levels.
For this reason, the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism has been considering the use of new tech tools to fight poaching for some time. The additional support from WWF now allows rapid implementation of this innovative technology. “We are elated that we could help to enhance enforcement on the ground with tech that can give Namibia the upper hand to detect and deter poachers who are linked to organized crime,” said Allan.
Communal conservancies play a vital and highly successful role in monitoring habitat areas and swiftly reporting incidents outside of National Parks. Augmenting the power of this network is an existing rhino and elephant hotline that allows members of the public to text crime alerts to authorities.
Manie le Roux, head of Central Parks with the Namibian Ministry of Environment & Tourism
and a veteran of rhino conservation knows this is the way of the future. “We are heading in the right direction to make it too difficult for poachers to score successes in Namibia,” he says.
Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism has decided to use the Falcon UAV systems strategically in all the rhino and elephant areas in Namibia. Chief Conservation Scientist for Wildlife Research and National Rhino Coordinator Pierre du Preez coordinates the integrated technology approach with WWF. He agrees that technology is very important for enhancing effectiveness, but it is not a solution on its own—the enforcement teams operating on the ground and responding to the technology are essential. After spending time on the ground with these dedicated officers, seeing them work in harsh conditions and at personal risk, WWF strongly agrees with du Preez.
Timeline: Phase One
- November 2012
WWF convenes more than 100 experts to rethink integrated approaches in the fight against wildlife crime.
- February 2013
After evaluating 16 candidate geographies in Africa and Asia, WWF experts select Namibia as the pilot geography for Phase One of the project.
- March 2013
The Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism agrees to partner with WWF to collaboratively select, integrate, test and deploy systems that support anti-poaching efforts in key sites.
- April 2013
Wildlife Crime Technology Project staff and a wildlife security expert perform a comprehensive site analysis of a National Park in Namibia as the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism embeds radio frequency identification chips in rhino horns for monitoring purposes.
- May 2013
WWF releases a Request for Information and Proposals to international technology companies for Unmanned Aerial Systems.
- July 2013
Over 50 international submissions are received proposing Unmanned Aerial Systems for protecting wildlife. This includes a range of platforms with varying capabilities – the first time such an assessment has been conducted for wildlife crime applications.
- September 2013
WWF and cellular engineer partners manufacture prototype affordable tracking devices using cell technology.
- September 2013
A WildCrime Tech Network Google Group is created to enhance information exchange on technology solutions to wildlife crime between innovators in the technology sector and conservation practitioners.
- October 2013
More than one platform is selected to demonstrate relative capabilities in challenging field conditions and patrol scenarios.
- October 2013
WWF co-hosts a forum on Protecting Threatened Wildlife in Africa with Technology and Training with the Richardson Center for Global Engagement and African Parks. Over 60 experts from the research and development, government, enforcement, non-profit and private sectors convene to discuss specific experiences with emerging technologies.
- November 2013
WWF and the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism commission a pilot system of ground-based sensors connected by a Radio Frequency Mesh Network for enhanced real-time monitoring of key areas.
- November 2013
Over thirty wardens from every region of Namibia join WWF staff and technology experts for a week of field trials in two National Parks. Proof-of-concept for successful integration of technology systems is achieved.
- December 2013
The Falcon UAV aerial platform is selected by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism for strategic use in all the rhino and elephant areas in Namibia.