David Allen sits in a semi-dark trailer, eyes on a computer screen. He is scanning an image from an aerial drone skimming the treetops at the Dinokeng Game Reserve in South Africa. It is searching for elephants. A cloud of dust appears in the camera’s field of view – the plane banks toward it, and there! A big bull, ears flapping with each step, a tracking collar around his neck. The ERP Air Force has found its target, with the aim not to destroy, but to save the creature from his nemesis, the human poacher.
The link to poverty
The group behind this – a non-governmental organization called Elephants, Rhinos, & People or ERP, was founded in 2014 by groupelephant.com to preserve and protect Southern Africa’s wild elephants and rhinos through alleviating rural poverty. A look at some numbers shows the link between poverty and threats to the elephants and rhinos.
According to groupelephant.com, rhino horn is worth up to hundreds of times the per-capita income in poor rural areas of Southern Africa. On the global black market, it can fetch up to $80,000 per kilogram. Depending on the species, a rhino horn can weigh three to four kilos, so one horn can command more than $300,000 – an unimaginable fortune to most people there.
The result is carnage. Wild African elephants are being killed at the rate of four an hour. At the end of 2016, the population was 352,000, according to Group Elephant. Rhinos are in far worse shape: The total population as of this writing is 19,682 Southern White Rhinos and 5,042 Black Rhinos for a total of 24,724 in all of Africa. The government of South Africa says 529 rhinos were poached in that nation alone in the first half of 2017. ERP says all in all, three rhinos are killed every day. Any effort to preserve this species must give people an alternative to poaching and a stake in the animals’ survival, through jobs and economic opportunities like tourism. Conservation initiatives also have to make the most of scarce resources, and that requires cutting-edge technology.
Covering a lot of ground
These are big animals, they can move quickly, and their stomping grounds are large. Dinokeng alone encompasses more than 45,000 acres. It would be impractical to hire enough people to keep tabs on every elephant and every rhino there every moment of every day. Inside the reserve, they are safer, but if they break out into the surrounding suburban area, just north of Pretoria, they face threats, including exposure to poachers who might not risk the reserve itself. ERP works with Dinokeng to patrol the fences and help keep the animals in, but there’s a limit to what they can accomplish. That’s where the ERP Air Force, the tracking collars, and Big Data come in.
Eyes in the sky
Back in the trailer, the GPS collar monitoring system has alerted drone pilot David Allen that the bull is getting too close to the fences. The drone follows the elephants as they approach the limits of the reserve. The operator can then direct rangers in SUVs or a helicopter to nudge the herd away from the boundary. That reduces the poachers’ ability to kill the animals – outside Dinokeng, there is less protection. The drones will also watch for poaching within the reserve, and ERP hopes to use them for other initiatives.
Big Data to protect big creatures
ERP uses cutting-edge digital technology to save these wild elephants and rhinos, both by keeping them in safe areas and by alleviating the poverty of the local population. All of that requires the ability to wrangle huge amounts of data quickly, from knowing where the elephants are, to routing the people to them. A group of technology companies, including SAP and its partner EPI-USE, have collaborated with ERP to build a system capable of collecting, organizing, storing, and retrieving that information.
Next on the roadmap is predictive analytics: As EPI-USE’s Jan van Rensburg said in May 2017, “We rely upon analytics in the background, a platform where we can predict where poaching will happen. And we use the data that we build up and store in our in-memory database so that we can more efficiently use the drones, and send them to the spots where poachers are more likely to be. And when a poacher is found by the drone, we can dispatch a ranger to deal with it.”
A weapon to save, not kill
So for ERP, Big Data and the ability to use it in real time have become a weapon in the fight to save endangered elephants and rhinos, while helping people in poverty create new ways to earn a living and turn away from poaching.
Want to know more about how ERP uses Big Data and drones to save endangered wild Elephants and Rhinos through alleviating rural poverty? Watch the video.