Owl tracking technology catches human prey

12 December 2017 - 14:13
By Shaun Smillie
Justice came on silent wings - as owl tracking technology helped catch car thieves after they drove into an Alexandra scrapyard.
Image: Dr. Gareth Tate Justice came on silent wings - as owl tracking technology helped catch car thieves after they drove into an Alexandra scrapyard.

When car thieves drove a stolen bakkie into a scrapyard in Alexandra‚ northern Johannesburg‚ they believed they had shaken off the cops and the car tracking companies.

But what they hadn’t noticed was a strange matchbox-sized device in the cubbyhole.

On Monday‚ police and law enforcement busted a suspected car syndicate ring after they were led there by a GPS device that is used to track grass owls.

Dr Gareth Tate‚ programme manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s birds of prey programme‚ was able to find his stolen bakkie by using some nifty CSI.

On Tuesday last week‚ Tate’s bakkie was stolen‚ while he was visiting his brother in Parkhurst.

“From CCTV footage we watched a silver blue Toyota Corolla pull up next to the bakkie. Seven minutes later the bakkie was gone‚” Tate said.

Tate contacted the police and Netstar initially was able to track the bakkie’s tracking device. But then it went dead‚ after the thieves located the tracker and disabled it.

It was about this time that Tate got an idea.

The night before‚ Tate and his team were meant to place a tracking device on a grass owl‚ a threatened bird species. They had decided not to go‚ because of the rain.

“Immediately I remembered that I have this device in the car and I quickly submitted new settings as I knew that at 2 o’clock that afternoon‚ it would be coming online‚” said Tate.

Any updates Tate received would appear on his cellphone. The solar powered tracking device worked‚ explained Tate‚ by coming online once every 20 hours to send location data.

Tate set the tracking device to collect information every ten minutes. But he had to be careful‚ as he didn't want the batteries to run out. He then notified Netstar and police to be on standby.

But at 2 o’clock the device was dead.

For the next three days Tate kept checking his phone in the hope that the tracker would switch on.

"By Friday‚ I had got kakvol. These guys had deactivated the car tracker‚ they must be sharp enough to have found my device‚ I thought‚" he said.

Then on Sunday at about 5pm‚ Tate looked at his cellphone one more time‚ and realised the tracker had switched on.

"It was firing off GPS signals and locations."

Tate quickly alerted Netstar and the police and told them of the last location recorded on the tracker.

A team searched a number of houses in Alexandra‚ but came up with nothing.

On Monday morning‚ Tate got another idea and decided he would try something.

“When the battery is flat and they have a really bad signal‚ they don't often get a perfect fix‚ it affects their accuracy‚” he explained of the device.

But Tate had written software that corrects accuracy errors in the tracker.

He fed all the data from the tracker into his software programme.

"I ran the model and boom! It produced this hotspot of where that device is‚ and it was five houses down from where they guys had been the previous evening”.

Police‚ with security companies‚ raided the scrap yard. There‚ they found Tate’s bakkie and they arrested three men. Also recovered were two other stolen vehicles.

Police spokesman Lieutenant Kay Makhubela said that police suspected that the alleged gang had been involved in hijackings and car theft across Johannesburg. “Further investigation will reveal if they are part of a larger syndicate‚” he said.

In the cubbyhole was the tracker.

“The best part is that I got my device back‚” he said. “It would have cost over R30‚000 to replace.”