Changing the game in the fight against poaching

Postcode Meerkat system withstands extreme temperatures, thick vegetation and challenging terrain

26 April 2019 - 09:53
By Lynette Dicey
Baby rhino orphans at the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Image: Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage Baby rhino orphans at the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The rhino poaching crisis, which began in 2008, has threatened the species with extinction. Around 80% of the world’s rhinos can be found in SA. At the height of the crisis, between 2013 and 2017, more than 1,000 rhinos a year were being killed by poachers. A slight decline was recorded in 2018 with 769 rhinos killed by poachers, a decline of 259 compared to 2017 when 1,028 were killed.

The cumulative impact of the crisis, says the Save the Rhino Fund, is taking its toll on rhino populations around the country, with the situation worsened by drought, which in turn affects food and water resources.

Most rhino poaching takes place in the world-renowned Kruger National Park. Protecting the species in the vast 19,485km² protected habitat, however, has proved challenging.

In late 2016 a wide-area surveillance system, dubbed Postcode Meerkat and designed in partnership with SA National Parks (SANParks), Peace Parks Foundation and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was introduced in the Kruger National Park to assist the efforts of the Rhino Protection Programme.

The system collects vital surveillance data and information and combines the detection localisation and tracking capabilities of radar with the visual target classification abilities of an electro-optical system, providing both day and night surveillance capabilities. Innovatively designed to overcome the challenges that cause traditional surveillance equipment to fail in the African bush environment, the system withstands extreme temperatures, thick vegetation and challenging terrain.

The combination of radar and electro-optical technology allows the system to detect movement and distinguish between human and animal movement over large distances.

Postcode Meerkat —which takes its name from the People’s Postcode Lottery of the UK and the Dutch Postcode Lottery, who supported the research, development and deployment of the system — has made a significant impact on anti-poaching efforts in the Kruger National Park, successfully reducing poaching incidents by 80% and contributing significantly to the effectiveness of anti-poaching teams.

Early detection of potential criminal poachers means that rangers, anti-poaching units and helicopters can be rapidly deployed to maximum effect.

The Postcode Meerkat system was commissioned and developed in less than a year and deployed to high-risk areas, defined as areas favoured by black and white rhino.

In addition to providing early warning and detection services, the system also allows poachers to be tracked, allowing anti-poaching units to apprehend them before any animals are killed.

Apart from increasing the Kruger National Park’s ability to protect rhino, Postcode Meerkat will also help the park protect other vulnerable species.

Since the system was first deployed, the CSIR team, which is providing ongoing technical and administrative support to the Kruger National Park, has refined and advanced the technology even further. During 2018, additional sensor systems were deployed, which has increased the area under surveillance.

The Postcode Meerkat team members were awarded the Innovation award at the 2018 Kudu Awards for their contribution. The Kudu Awards recognise individuals and organisations that make a significant contribution to SANParks’ operations and effectiveness.

This article was paid for by the South African Tourism Board.