Faced with swelling numbers of increasingly brazen poachers and an apparently insatiable appetite for the purported mystical qualities of their horns and tusks, African elephants and rhinos face the real prospect of extinction in our lifetime.
But for the brave work of nature conservationists and the on-going support of likeminded corporates, these giants of the African savannah may well go the way of the dinosaurs soon.
For one non-profit organisation working to combat the rise in poaching and support local surrounding communities, this prospect is unthinkable.
“The world’s wild elephant and rhino populations are being driven to the edge of extinction due to the confluence of ivory and rhino horn demand, conflict between rural communities and elephants, and the highly lucrative wildlife trafficking trade,” says Dereck Milburn, director of operations at Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) .
“In response, we have piloted a highly successful anti-poaching initiative that has completely halted all poaching in the areas we’ve monitored. We are now readying to enter a second phase to expand the operations and increase the impact on conservation efforts.”
ERP was founded to preserve and protect Southern Africa’s wild elephants and rhinos through a strategy that is based on rural poverty alleviation through the non-profit organization ERP.ngo. It forms part of the structure of groupelephant.com, a largely employee-owned group of companies, non-profits and impact investment organisations with a strong global presence that also includes EPI-USE, an independent SAP Human Capital Management specialist.
On the brink of extinction
Over the past century, elephant and rhino numbers have been decimated. In 1900, there were an estimated 10 million elephants and 500 000 rhinos. Today, only 470 000 elephants and 25 000 rhinos remain in the wild, but as many as fiev rhinos and 100 elephants are killed every day by poachers.
“We’re facing an uphill battle in the fight for the continued existence of these magnificent animals. Core to the problem is simple economics: the average income for people in Southern Africa is $1 700 per year. A pair of elephant tusks can raise $50 000; a single rhino horn can fetch $360 000.
“We need to work closely with local communities to help protect these animals and deploy technology as a tool for better tracking and protection of our dwindling elephant and rhino numbers while empowering local communities through poverty alleviation.”
Securing the support of local communities in the fight against poaching is key to the project’s success.
According to Milburn, elephants in particular tend to wander outside the boundaries of conservation areas in search of food, creating conflict with local communities when the animals trample crops grown for sustenance and profit.
“In one of our more successful interventions, a number of beehives were placed outside the perimeter of the conservation area to discourage elephants, who avoid bees as far as possible. This has had the dual benefit of keeping elephants within protected areas and giving the local community access to an additional food source and revenue stream.”
New tech gives edge in fight for elephant, rhino survival
The second phase of the project will build on the success of the first phase while introducing new high-tech tools to combat poaching. “One of our big challenges is that conservationists that have been deployed to combat poachers, often know where animals are, but have little visibility over where the poachers are.
“By using drone-fitted cameras and linking them to the SAP Cloud Platform, we hope to automatically identify animals and poachers through machine vision and machine learning capabilities.
“A recently launched geo-enabled solution called SAP HANA Spatial Services also enables us to process complex imagery and visualise and analyse the data to equip our ground teams with improved geospatial information. This will help us potentially identify areas where animals are likely to migrate to next in search of food and water, allowing us to proactively deploy on-the-ground anti-poaching resources.”
ERP.ngo has the full support of the SAP Africa team, with the Co-Innovation Lab, launched in Johannesburg in 2016, acting as an innovation hub where conservationists and SAP experts can collaborate to find new applications for the latest tech in support of anti-poaching efforts. According to Rudi de Louw, head of the SAP co-innovation lab at SAP Africa, they are currently investigating IoT, machine learning, geospatial imagery and predictive analytics as tools in the fight against poachers, all integrated to SAP’s Leonardo innovation platform.
“Currently, the tracking devices that allow us to see the movement of the animals are very large, weighing up to 10kg. This is suitable for elephants but not for any smaller animals. Through EPI-USE’s recent acquisition of electronic manufacturer Kreon and integration with the SAP Cloud Platform and our Leonardo suite of next-generation technologies, we hope, with the help of the latest technologies, to reduce the weight of the sensors dramatically, enabling us to track a much wider range of animals more accurately and with predictive capabilities enabled.
“We are also investigating new forms of capacity building to address the need for drone operators, who play a vital role in equipping ground teams with actionable insights and intel into animal and poaching activity.”
In the tracking of high-value endangered animals, information security is paramount lest poachers gain access to information that would enable them to escalate their operations.
“The SAP Cloud Platform enables enterprise-level information security to give us 100% confidence that the work we do won’t fall into the wrong hands,” says Milburn. “We’re also capturing all learnings from this next phase to enable us to replicate successful interventions in other regions where animals are in peril.”
Cathy Smith, MD of SAP Africa, points to the on-going conservation efforts as a prime example of the role technology can play in safeguarding Earth’s immense biodiversity.
“As an organisation committed to the ambitions of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, SAP Africa is proud to see the progress being made by ERP.ngo and its partners in terms of Goal 15, which aims to address biodiversity with urgent action and hopes to ensure the conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems.
“As our technological prowess increases exponentially with the introduction of new technologies, we believe it is our duty as a purpose-driven organisation to employ the immense power of technology and people in the service of safeguarding our natural heritage.”