An invention that will fight poaching and support developing communities

A mother with her baby elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo by: Diana Robinson / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — Illegal poaching is not just a conservation issue, it’s a development issue.

A 2014 paper by the World Bank estimated that the annual economic impact of crimes — including poaching — affecting natural resources and the environment in developing countries was more than $70 billion. The impact leads not only to missed opportunities for economic advancement of communities, but it also fuels corruption, creates distrust in civil authorities and undermines legitimate businesses that are based on natural resource.

Illegal poaching is still going strong. It is one of the biggest factors in the rapid decline of elephant populations in Africa, with the pace of extinction leading to predictions that in 20 years there will be no more wild elephants in Africa.

George Wittemyer, an associate professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University, and Akos Ledeczi, a professor of computer engineering with the Institute for Software Integrated Systems, are hoping to halt the decline.

Combining innovative technological solutions with a passion for conservation and empowering developing communities, the pair created WIPER — a collar that will detect bullets fired in the vicinity of elephant populations, triggering an immediate alert for intervention.

The invention came second in the 2017 Wireless Innovation Project, sponsored by Vodafone Americas Foundation. With the $200,000 prize money, Wittemyer and Ledeczi are expecting to have a refined solution available for mass production within three years. It will add little or no addition on the existing costs of tracking collars but will create a better chance of eliminating the illegal and militarized poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses once and for all.

Developing a solution to a conservation crisis

In 2014, a study on poaching of African elephants conducted by Wittemyer revealed that 100,000 were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012. “We were caught off guard by a surge in poaching,” he explained to Devex.

Wittemyer and his team had been working in the field with a number of different populations across Africa — with a focus on Kenya — conducting research on land use change and impact on elephants and other species from poaching. At the same time, commercially driven pressure was leading to increased poaching with a rapid impact on elephant populations.

“It is extremely dangerous for wildlife rangers and local communities,” Wittemyer said. He was determined to find solution for this growing — and increasingly dangerous — crisis.

The solution needed to factor in the difficulty of monitoring elephant populations that are wide ranging and live remotely. It also needed to overcome the calculating nature of poachers to find holes in protection systems. “They go to no-man lands or areas with gaps of protection and take advantage of that,” Wittemyer said.

Current radio collars that track elephant populations are easy for poachers to shoot off and provide delayed information of attacks too late for an intervention. And a gunshot detection system to protect rhino populations in the Kruger National Park was beaten by the use of silencers to prevent detection.

“The idea for us was simple,” Wittemyer explained. “My partner in this project, Akos Ledeczi, had been working on the same problem for the military. His approach was to not focus on the muzzle blast, but on the shockwave of the bullet itself.”

WIPER will be able to detect a bullet within 50 meters. A collar on one elephant would identify a bullet fired in the vicinity of an entire elephant herd that cannot be hidden with a muzzle. And a rapid, real-time signal that instantly sends through a GPS location would occur faster than it would take for a poacher to shoot off the collar, providing community run security networks and federal anti-poaching networks with the power to intervene quickly and eliminate poaching networks.

But there are still limits.

“The trick of it is there are already places where they are shifting to poison, but those places are relatively rare and is a whole other can of worms,” Wittemyer said. “And for smaller animals, snares are often used. This solution won’t work for all types of poaching but for this commercially driven and highly militarized poaching that is hammering populations of rhinos and elephants, this will be an exciting solution.”

Seeing the potential

June Sugiyama, director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation, agrees that WIPER is an exciting solution. The Wireless Innovation Project, she explained, seeks innovative ideas using wireless-related technology to address social issues around the world.

“Poaching is not just about animals and the preservation of our earth but also the communities that are affected by poaching,” Sugiyama told Devex. “Some of the income from poaching ivory and organs of animals can fund militias and create violence among communities, particularly for women and children. It can also diminished a whole community if they are chased out.”

WIPER was able to successfully demonstrate both the social impact and technological capability, allowing it to become the first animal conservation idea to win the challenge.

“Our winners have ranged all the way from better toilets to stethoscopes to detecting preterm births,” Sugiyama said. “The ideas and solutions are vast and each one is unique. We always learn from our applicants and winners, and the better the education they can provide us, the better chance they have for winning.”

Another important aspect of WIPER for the Vodafone Americas Foundation was its ability to bring together diverse groups to solve the technical and social problems caused by poaching.

“What you are seeing with this solution is that it incorporates what has been used so far, but improves upon that by using technology within developed world: soundwave technology to detect bullets, which is starting to be used widely within police forces,” Sugiyama said. “It is cross-disciplinary and a cross-collaborative solution, which we really find to be important in the success of projects.”

Refining and scaling a practical and commercially viable solution

The Vodafone challenge itself has already allowed Wittemyer and Ledeczi to look at new approaches to enhance and scale their invention. Discussing their idea with challenge finalists, they have had their eyes opened to the use of mobile platforms to solve this problem. “Obviously we want to make our solution widely available and mobile phone platforms are prevalent throughout the areas in Africa and Asia we are working in,” Wittemyer said. “And this means we don’t need a high-end computing solutions as part of our response if we can learn to leverage these networks better.”

With the support of Vodafone, an operational prototype is expected to be in the field within a year. This will allow time to trial, test and refine before the period of support through the challenge ends and provide manufacturers with a rugged solution they can quickly mass manufacture and embed into animal tracking systems.

“We have shopped around this idea several time, and each time we are asked to show a proof of concept — which is what we wanted money for,” Wittemyer said. “This Vodafone opportunity has been extremely exciting to us because it gave us the funding required to incubate and prototype and develop a working product.”

And it can assist in the fight against poaching to protect animals and the communities they impact.

Update, Sept. 7, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that WIPER placed second in the 2017 Wireless Innovation Project. 

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.