​Dimension Data and Cisco extend Connected Conservation efforts in Africa

Phase two of the goodwill Internet of Things project from both tech giants will see conservation efforts boosted in South Africa and extended into Zambia, Kenya, and Mozambique.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor
rhino-flickr user.jpg

Cisco and Dimension Data have announced ramping up their Connected Conservation efforts, moving into phase two of the goodwill project aiming to stamp out animal poaching in Africa.

The pair of tech giants have been focusing on rhinoceros conservation in Africa since 2015, motivated by the statistic that one rhino is killed every eight hours in South Africa.

Following the success of phase one, the tech project will be expanding; Dimension Data's group executive for the Cisco Global Alliance Bruce "Doc" Watson told ZDNet that the solution in place in South Africa is going to be replicated in three other regions.

"Our plans are to go further into Africa, just completing another installation in Zambia, and then we are going to follow up and go into Kenya in a reserve as well as Mozambique, and the whole idea is to push more into Africa to put our solution in," Watson explained.

Work on the Zambia installation is in progress, while the Kenya location will be live before the end of the year. The Mozambique solution is currently in the design stage.

Connected Conservation is a passion project for Watson, who started the initiative by approaching Cisco's CEO and a handful of other executives at a partner summit.

They agreed to be part of the project, and in February 2015, Watson led a research and development team comprised of staff from both companies. The team went into a private reserve alongside the Kruger National Park in South Africa, an area of 135,000 acres, and developed a solution that linked people, gadgets, and technology together.

"The whole idea was to create a safe haven for animals, in particular rhinos, for them to run freely and for them to protect the land against people," Watson said. "The whole idea was to make it a very proactive solution, 99 percent of the solutions out there today are all reactive -- we are the first to approach a proactive solution."

A reactive approach to preventing poaching is incredibly stressful for the animals. Often, the process involves humans shooting the rhino, for example, with a tranquiliser dart from a helicopter. With this approach, the team on the ground find the rhino, blindfold it, and drill a hole in the horn to fix in a sensor. Then, the subcutaneous layer -- a layer of tissue that lies immediately below the dermis of vertebrate skin -- is cut in the rear end of the rhino to allow another sensor to be inserted.

"The problem with that is when the sensors stop speaking to each other ... the rhino is either dead or its horn has been hacked off, and it's too late," Watson said.

The Dimension Data-Cisco initiative does not interfere with the animals at all; rather it creates a safe haven for the animals to roam freely, protecting the land against people, in particular, poachers.

Installation of phase one of the project started in November 2015 and was completed by February 2016. In the first year of operation, rhino poaching was reduced by 96 percent in the private game reserve. There have since been no poaching incidents, Watson said.

"We've had fence crossings and cuts, and found tracks in 2017, but we've had no rhinos lost," he added.

The reserve -- comprised of 48 private game farms, most commercial entities, with lodges for tourists to stay and drive around on safari -- is very remote. It boasted very little infrastructure and absolutely no IT infrastructure when Watson and his team arrived. There was, however, a basic control room -- a brick room under manual lock and key with absolutely no communications whatsoever, Watson recalled.


Connected Conservation control room

Image: Supplied

The reserve has four pedestrian gates, three of which are also vehicle gates; the western boundary is an electrified fence spanning 72kms. But the interior of the reserve has absolutely no fencing, allowing the game to roam freely.

Phase one saw CCTV with biometric scanning placed at each of the four gates. There was also a local area network with Wi-Fi, as well as sniffer dogs at each of the gates.

"Around the perimeter we have a point-to-point routing network and in that network we include the thermal cameras at high-intensive zones, as well as CCTV cameras that then all link into a control centre where we're running some management software," Watson explained.

"We have 24 screens which are manned and controlled 24/7 and any incursion that we have, or a fence cut around the western boundary, an alarm goes off in the control centre and we dispatch teams on the ground and a helicopter.

"What we have managed to do is reduce our response times from 30 minutes down to seven minutes anywhere in the reserve."

Phase two, slated for completion by the end of next month, will see the South African deployment further extended by placing sensors on all of the vehicles that enter the reserve.

"One vehicle comes through the reserve every three minutes and that can be anybody from a tourist to a staff member, contractor, supplier, land owner, and before any one of those vehicles enter the reserve, the occupants have to provide their ID or passport, and the vehicle registration number," Watson said.

"What we do is we cross-check that to the national database to make sure that we're not allowing a criminal into the reserve."

Dimension Data and Cisco have also added to phase one by putting in a point to multi-point routing network around the perimeter of the reserve, installing also acoustic fibre on the bottom strand of the electrified fence. They have also added thermal cameras to the perimeter, as well as CCTV cameras.


Acoustic fibre and thermal cameras placed along the perimeter fencing

Image: Supplied

"We are also burying magnetic sensors in the ground so we can pick up any form of metal that comes across the boundary fencing," Watson added.

On the interior of the reserve, Watson and his team are also deploying LoRa technology to give the rangers from the private reserve internal communications.

"Effectively what you're going to have is a mobile control centre driving around the reserve for the head of security when he goes on patrols -- all of that then is going to link into the control room and will be managed," he added.

By placing sensors onto every vehicle that enters the reserve will allow the team to know where the vehicles are, and if they divert off the track, they will be tracked and intercepted.

Watson's conservation dream doesn't stop at Africa; he plans on taking the solution to India and further into Asia to protect tigers and then the ocean.

"We want to go into the ocean to protect the sea rays, whales, and sharks as well," he said. "And we've had a request out of New Zealand to have a look at that."

Although no work has begun, Watson said sea life preservation would involve floating towers with LoRA technology to create virtual boundaries of sorts, coupled with thermal cameras.


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