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Can technology transform wildlife protection in Africa?

In an increasingly fast-changing world, wildlife conservation must evolve to keep pace. While boots-on-the-ground efforts remain critical and will continue to be the cornerstone of protective measures, technology must be used to its full potential to make these efforts successful. From anti-poaching e-bikes to cutting-edge satellite surveillance systems, technology can amplify physical efforts and save costs as human pressures on wildlife steadily increase.

This year’s “World Wildlife Day” focused on technological strides in wildlife conservation. This innovation, however, isn’t just a talking point; it’s a critical lifeline for species threatened by poaching, habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and climate change, coming in what may be the last window we have to avert biodiversity collapse. With arguably the greatest wildlife left on the planet, Africa is leading, and must continue to lead, in adoption of these new tools.

Leopard movement in camera footage at Kruger National Park

In the digital era, the natural world faces a crisis. According to the WWF’s Living Planet Index, Africa has lost 66% of its wildlife in the last 50 years. Over this same period, TV has gone colour, computers went from needing entire rooms to fitting in our pockets, the internet revolutionised access to information, and now AI is transforming the world by automating tasks, enhancing decision-making processes, and ushering in a new era of efficiency. 

We believe that we can turn the tide, combining technical ingenuity with a revitalisation of the connection Africans, and all people, have with wildlife. Across the continent governments and conservation organisations are leading the way, taking bold steps to advance protective efforts and using new technologies to increase awareness. 

Africa has lost 66% of its wildlife in the last 50 years

Innovative Approaches to Anti-Poaching: Drones and E-bikes on Patrol

In Zimbabwe, Anti Poaching Tracking Specialists (ATS) utilises a sophisticated arsenal of technology to enhance its protection of rhinos. Working in the Save Valley Conservancy, it deployed specialised e-bikes. These high-tech bikes empower rangers to cover vast areas undetected, making contact with poachers and apprehending them. The bikes’ quiet operation allows for discreet observation of animal behaviour, aiding in conservation efforts beyond anti-poaching.

From the sky above, drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging are enabling ATS rangers to locate poachers at night and in challenging terrain, while GPS dog collars help track trained canines during pursuit missions. Strategic planning and informed deployment of resources are enhanced by its digital mapping software, which provides a comprehensive overview of protected areas and locations of wildlife and illegal activity hotspots. 

These technological advancements have yielded impressive results, significantly increasing the detection rate of poachers, leading to numerous arrests. Looking ahead, ATS remains committed to pushing the boundaries of innovation. Their future vision includes incorporating AI-powered drones for automated species identification, further streamlining anti-poaching operations.

Anti Poaching Tracking Specialists team in their high-tech e-bikes

Satellite Hounds: A Powerful Tool for Apprehension

The Southern African Wildlife College, in South Africa’s Limpopo province, boasts a unique and highly effective anti-poaching team – its intrepid K9 unit. This specialised squad utilises a combination of technology and highly-trained, free-running (off-lead) canines to track and apprehend poachers. Specially designed GPS collars worn by the dogs allow rangers to monitor their movements in real-time as they pursue poachers on the ground. The unit operates in close coordination with the Wildlife College’s Savannah light sports aircraft as well as SANParks’ helicopters, providing aerial support and allowing rangers to follow the dogs’ progress and apprehend the poachers.

The effectiveness of the K9 unit speaks for itself. With a 60-80% success rate of dogs making contact with poachers, this innovative approach will significantly reduce poaching activity in protected areas. Looking ahead, the Wildlife College is exploring ways to further enhance the capabilities of their canine partners whilst also offering canine training across the southern African region. Equipping these free-tracking hounds with miniature cameras and heat signature technology, as an example, could provide valuable situational awareness and improve overall mission effectiveness.

Beyond Anti-Poaching: Protecting Species and Habitats

Technology plays a crucial role in various aspects of wildlife conservation beyond anti-poaching. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Nigeria utilises automated camera traps to capture important information about wildlife populations and behaviour. These silent sentinels recently captured the first images of infant Cross River gorillas in decades, a species with less than 300 left.

Additionally, GPS/satellite collars attached to elephants provide real-time tracking data, enabling rangers to monitor their movements and prevent potential conflicts with human settlements and identify important migration routes, while the SMART conservation software they use has proven an invaluable tool. This software streamlines data collection and analysis related to illegal activities within protected areas, allowing for more informed decision-making and improved resource allocation, helping conservationists manage and protect wildlife and wild places. 

A ranger installing a camera

Securing the Future: Expanding Technological Solutions

South African National Parks (SANParks) showcases another innovative approach to conservation – the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera system. This technology automatically identifies and records the licence plates of vehicles entering and exiting the park, helping to control illegal movement within its boundaries. Sandra Snelling, Operations Control Manager at Kruger National Park (KNP), reports that the ANPR system is one of the contributing factors to the current reduction in rhino poaching in the KNP, has improved tourist safety by deterring criminal activity, and has even assisted in locating missing vehicles. Moving forward, SANParks plans to expand the ANPR system to cover a larger portion of the park, to amplify the impacts and further solidifying their commitment to technological advancements in conservation.

Elephant passing a camera at night, Kruger National Park

Leveraging Digital Technologies for Awareness

At Wild Africa, we’ve embraced the potential of technology too. From our streaming through Showmax, to our digital billboard campaign executed across the continent in partnership with Alliance Media, to our social media communications, technologies will increasingly be leveraged to turn up the volume on conservation. And this approach is already showing progress! In Nigeria, an externally run survey of 1000 people from eight states showed that 86 percent said they remembered our campaign and 31 percent said they have stopped consuming illegal bushmeat. Our hope is to see this kind of impact and compassion for the environment across the continent. 

The Greatest Challenge

Perhaps the greatest question of technology is, can it help to reduce inequality and better the lives of those at the lower end of the scale? We all know it has created billionaires and highly paid jobs in the tech industry, but how do our labour-saving devices help create steady employment in the rest of the economy, particularly in ecologically sensitive areas where they’re desperately needed?

Beyond Technology

As we celebrate its achievements, we should remember that technology is a tool, and the real power to protect our planet lies in our collective – human – hands and in many cases in our political decisions and consumer choices. The need is urgent as we lose species that have existed for millennia and compromise ecosystems that form the very foundations for human life. Let’s imagine a different future – where people and wildlife survive and thrive together, and where we use the best of our humanity and technology to create, connect and conserve.