Article by Mike Gaworecki.
In a first for the species, several black rhinos in Tanzania’s Mkomazi National Park have had small, networked sensors embedded directly in their horns in order to allow park rangers to monitor the animals much more closely than in the past.
The sensors make use of LoRaWAN technology (which stands for “Long Range Wide Area Network”), a wireless communication protocol and system architecture that is expected to do for the Internet of Things (IoT) what 3G and 4G connectivity did for mobile phone networks. In other words, LoRaWAN is designed to allow low-powered devices, like sensors in rhino horns, to communicate with Internet-connected devices, like computers in a ranger station, over long-range wireless networks.
The sensors were deployed by a company called The Internet of Life, which uses IoT technology to protect endangered wildlife, and the ShadowView Foundation, which specializes in applying innovative new technologies to environmental and wildlife conservation. Instead of GPS, a relatively power-hungry technology, the battery-powered sensors use a geolocation system developed by a company called Semtech that makes it possible to update the rhinos’ location as much as a couple times every hour. Many GPS-enabled IoT applications consume so much energy that updates are only possible once or twice a day.
All of the location data generated by the sensors is transmitted to a command center, where each black rhino being tracked appears on a digital map. Various other systems are integrated into this control room, according to project leader and Internet of Life founder Tim van Dam, all of which are part of the Smart Parks communication and management platform developed by the Internet of Life and ShadowView Foundation.
A sensor being implanted in a black rhino’s horn. Photo courtesy of ShadowView Foundation.
Other Smart Parks technologies being utilized in Mkomazi National Park’s control room include solar-powered LoRaWAN-based sensors that track when gates of the 50-square-kilometer rhino sanctuary within the park are opened or closed, solar-powered vehicle trackers that allow for monitoring of park personnel and tourists in high-risk areas, and digital radios for voice communication with ranger patrols.
“Rhinos always need protection from the foot patrol — rangers protecting every individual rhino,” van Dam told Mongabay. Combining all of the systems used to manage and protect the park in one networked command center ensures that rangers can always be close to the rhinos and able to take action or call for help quickly. “Any strange behavior will be detected and the park rangers will step in.”
When they’re running, black rhinos can achieve top speeds over 50 kilometers or 30 miles an hour, meaning humans can only keep up in a car or on a motorbike. But van Dam said that the rhinos typically move quite slow, making it easy to tell when they’re stressed. However, the goal is not to simply be reactive when a poacher enters the park or a rhino runs into some other kind of trouble: “Most intel is used to prevent such situations, so most of the time the system is used for tactical reasons,” van Dam added.
The black rhinoceros, also known as the hook-lipped rhinoceros, is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The species is also listed on CITES Appendix I, meaning that all international commercial trade of black rhinos or products derived from the animals is prohibited.
LoRaWAN is one of several technologies currently being put to use for real-time monitoring of wildlife. The network in Mkomazi National Park covers the entire rhino sanctuary, van Dam said. He also noted that the area covered by the Smart Parks system in Akagera National Park, which lies in in eastern Rwanda on the border with Tanzania, is even bigger, at over 1,000 square kilometers.
ShadowView and The Internet of Life say they intend to continue building on the Smart Parks system by deploying new applications like better fence monitoring, networked camera-traps, and sensors for tracking firearms and other equipment in the near future.