A team of entrepreneurs in the United States have combined their expertise to combat elephant poaching in Africa, creating Wiper, a wireless anti-poaching device that uses GPS tracking and gunshot detection technology to automatically send the location of poaching events to authorities in real-time.
Wiper co-founders Akos Ledeczi from Vanderbilt University and George Wittemyer from Colorado State University told ZDNet they are hoping to thwart poaching at its source using an animal-mounted ballistic shockwave detector.
Wiper uses a low-power acoustic shot detector integrated with a GPS tracking collar to detect the shockwave generated by the supersonic bullet -- a technique used by the military to locate snipers -- so that the collar can recognise a gunshot even if the poacher muffles the shot.
The collar can detect gunshots within a 50-metre radius which means, unlike other trackers such as heart-rate monitors for individual animals, not all animals need to be collared.
"We can efficiently track poaching events by only collaring a few animals within a herd," Wittemyer and Ledeczi said.
The system operates by turning on the GPS a few times an hour to take a location fix, storing the information, and sending the data via a wireless connection -- either satellite or cellular -- to the cloud a few times a day.
When a shot is detected, an immediate alert is sent with the previous GPS location of the animal and the GPS is turned on.
"This is necessary since the poachers might destroy the device before a new GPS fix can be obtained," Wittemyer and Ledeczi said.
Once the current location is available, a second alert is sent provided the unit is still operational.
Wittemyer comes to the project with more than 20 years of field-based elephant conversation experience in Africa and Asia through his group at Colorado State University and the NGO Save the Elephants; while Ledeczi has 14 years of acoustic shooter detection and localisation experience.
"With our two backgrounds combined, we feel Wiper can be a strong asset in combating poaching and saving rapidly declining elephant and rhino populations," the team leaders explained.
The African elephant population has decreased by 20 percent over the past 10 years, primarily due to illegal poaching. Similarly, the African Wildlife Foundation also reports the rhino population has plummeted more than 97 percent since 1960.
"While many poaching deterrents have been introduced to the region over the years, none have proven to be able to prevent this illegal activity," Wittemyer and Ledeczi added.
The pair said poaching has a far larger impact than just to the livelihood of the targeted animals, noting that tourism is typically a key foreign currency generator in countries where elephants live.
"In the past decade, wildlife has become of the top illegally traded commodities globally and has been associated with militia activities and other illegal actions that can cause insecurity issues locally and nationally," they added.
"We view stopping poaching as an important goal for ethical, economic, ecological, and security reasons and we went down this path for Wiper to play a large part in the fight against poaching."
Wiper recently caught the attention of Vodafone, claiming the second place prize of $200,000 in Vodafone Americas Foundation's Wireless Innovation Project.
The team hopes to use the cash injection to support the development of its detection collar and software, as well as support the initial field testing of the device.
"The prize from Vodafone is the first large funding we have received and we're excited to join the previous winners from years prior who have received support from the Foundation," Wittemyer and Ledeczi added.
Neural network software firm Neurala announced last month it had partnered with the Lindbergh Foundation in an effort to combat elephant poaching using intelligent drones and artificial intelligence.