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Saving the Rhinos:
Scientists surprising new ally

Organizations Are Turning to Technology to Save the World’s Most Threatened Animals

When we think of the Internet of Things we typically think of classic use cases such as connected cars, Industry 4.0 and smart homes. While these are certainly among the biggest opportunities for the Internet of Things, recently there has been a market expansion into new areas which are not so obvious. One such area is wildlife conservation, as recent deployments of IoT networks designed to monitor and protect endangered species have mushroomed all over the globe in places such as Scandinavia, Africa and Australia. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains a database of the extinction risk of animal species, the number of threatened species rose globally from roughly 10,000 in 2000 to over 25,000 in 2018. The population figures for some of these species now stand at critical levels. The recent death of the last male Northern White Rhino in Sudan underscores the fact that new approaches towards wildlife conservation are needed.

Fortunately, the Internet of Things has shown potential to address this issue. The ability to deploy wireless sensor networks, often in remote and rugged areas, is creating new opportunities to monitor endangered species and their environment in order to ensure their protection. Technology has long been used in the form of GPS tracking but IoT networks are providing lower cost solutions to track and monitor wildlife. New advantages like better battery life, better sensor capabilities and real time data analysis are all being used in IoT deployments. Some of the most-notable uses of IoT in wildlife conservation are profiled below:

Saving the Rhinoceros with IoT Sensors in South Africa

The rhinoceros is one of the most endangered species in the world, as its population has fallen to critical levels as the global wild population currently numbers less than 30,000 animals. This is down from an estimated 1 million animals in the year 1800. Despite recent conservation efforts roughly 1,000 rhinos are killed by poachers every year for their horns, which can fetch between US$30,000 to US$100,000 per kilogram on the black market.

Due to critically low population numbers, the rhinoceros has long been a major focus of conservation efforts, and recently IoT has been increasingly used to protect these animals. In South Africa, which is home to 70% of the remaining wild rhino population, in 2015 animals were fitted with IoT-enabled collars. These collars were able to measure the animal’s heart rate and location, and hence were able to notify park authorities when an animal was in distress and its location. This was a major improvement in security capabilities, which were totally reliant on human activity. While this was a good first step, there were challenges associated with this system. It relied on satellite connectivity for GPS which is expensive, and batteries only lasted 9 months and hence animals had to be constantly sedated and refitted with new batteries.

Close up of a single Northern White Rhino

More recently IoT networks to protect rhinos are evolving to become more intelligent. On the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa, Zebras are being fitted with IoT sensors as well using LoRA and 3G/4G in partnership with a local mobile operator. Zebra herd react differently to humans and natural predators, and by monitoring herd movements park rangers are able to determine when poachers might be near and act proactively as opposed to reactively using Big Data Analytics. Going forward technologies such as drones, gunshot sensors and AI are expected to make this solution even more robust.

Preventing Reindeer Fatalities in Norway with Geofencing

Reindeer are a traditional herd animal in Norway, and provide a vital source of income for the native Sami people. Reindeer are considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN and of the estimated herd of 600,000 animals up to 10% are lost every year due to them escaping, predation by wolves and collisions with trains. Train collisions are a particular problem as 6,500 are hit by trains every year causing an estimated 8.5 million Euros in damage.

A reindeer pasturing in a snowy landscape near the Norway border

To combat this problem, IoT networks have been deployed which monitor the location and movement of reindeer herds using wireless connectivity. An application has been created which monitors the locations of reindeer herds and creates a geofence around rail tracks. This can then give real time alerts to train conductors and herders who can take preventative action. The system currently uses GPS but in the near future should be able to use cheaper wireless IoT standards in order to connect more animals. Reindeer often cross the border between Norway and Sweden which has led to a minor international dispute over grazing rights, and hence IoT could eventually also be used to solve this problem.

Citizen Data Collection to Save the Dugong in the Philippines

The dugong is a marine mammal found throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans and in recent years has experienced a population crash. Collisions with boats and poaching have taken a large toll and the global wild population is now thought to number 120,000 animals. In the Philippines local authorities are unsure of the exact population size due to the elusiveness of the creature and the high expense in monitoring the population via air or sea.

As such an IoT solution has been developed to try and gather better data on the status of the dugong population. Local fishermen are being given smartphones and instructed on how to photograph dugongs. Images and the location of the photos are uploaded to a cloud platform which is then analyzed by scientists and conservationists. It is hoped that by crowdsourcing the collection of information about the dugong, local authorities will be able to collect population data in a new and cost efficient manner which will enable the creation of a better conservation strategy.

A dugong swimming in the tropical sea water

What Does the Future Hold for IoT in Wildlife Conservation?

The Internet of Things is already enabling smart wildlife tracking beyond mere GPS tracking. In the future more technologies will be included in IoT services to provide more intelligent services. Sensor networks will continue to offer more monitoring capabilities and will become cheaper and smaller with scale. This will eventually enable the tracking of smaller animals such as the Pangolin which are also critically endangered. Drones will roam the skies and will be able to provide real-time video over vast landscapes using 5G which will provide valuable information to local authorities. Artificial Intelligence will be able to act on network data and will reduce the need for human intervention in wildlife monitoring. Biometric recognition will also provide a non-invasive way to monitor wildlife and hence all of these features combined will provide a critical weapon in the global fight to save endangered species.

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(February 28, 2020)