Coveted for its supposed medicinal benefits or as a status symbol for the rich and eccentric, rhino horns are in huge demand again, a trend that conservationists fear could wipe out the most vulnerable rhino species in a matter of years. In Asia, where demand is strongest, the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011, and two others Asian species are critically endangered. Now, with the street price of rhino horn around $65,000 per kilogram, poachers have turned to African rhinos.
“It started about four years ago, when we had about 10 to 15 rhinos killed. The next year it went up to 250. Last year it was over 660. The numbers just keep escalating,” says Michael Grover, a wildlife conservationist at South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve. According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, there were 273 rhino poaching incidents reported through April 30.
Grover’s small team of conservationists and security officers patrol an area 80 times larger than New York’s Central Park, and to fight poachers, they needed a more intelligent plan of attack. Grover wanted to know where and when the break-ins were occurring, how the rhinos were being attacked, and who might be behind the killings. “I went on to Google one day,” Grover recalls, “and typed in ‘how to make a BlackBerry app.’ That’s when I found the guys at Canvas.”
Canvas Solutions, a Reston (Va.) software developer that pushes companies to ditch paper in favor of digital sharing, wasn’t an obvious choice. London 2012 organizers used Canvas to manage certain inventory and security matters during the Summer Olympic Games, and an aircraft fueling company uses it for crane inspections. “A lot of NGOs use us too,” says Canvas co-founder and Chief Executive James Quigley. For example, medical researchers used Canvas to record from the field patient details during a suspected outbreak of avian flu in Madagascar in 2008.
Canvas users record various data points such as GPS, image capture, barcode scanning, electronic signatures, and the like, then transmit the details to the cloud, where they can be compiled and crunched in real-time by co-workers. Grover thought he could use Canvas’ software to pull in data from the daily patrols and map the points to show patterns in how intrusions were occurring. His team, all equipped with an Android-based smartphone, take, for example, geotagged photos of rhino slayings or cuts in the perimeter fencing to learn how the poachers are getting onto the reserve and what caliber of weapons they are using. They also record tracking data—photos of footprints that can be put in a database and matched against other images to see if the intruders are repeat offenders.
This is not the first time conservationists have used data analytics and mobile technologies to fight poachers. Worldwide Fund for Nature recently announced it won a $5 million grant from Google (GOOG) to launch drone patrols that will protect vulnerable rhino populations in Asia and Africa from poachers. At South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve, early attempts to tag the rhino horns with chips secretly embedded into the tissue didn’t work. Once the poachers caught on, they routinely sent the horns through an X-ray machine and then cut them out.
Grover and his team started using Canvas on patrols in February. In one recent photo of a slaying taken by a patrol member’s smartphone, a dead rhino is pictured on its back with its horns shorn off. The patrol member details the crime scene particulars. “Bullet wound visible,” he writes in the “info” field. The boxes “cut in fence” and “footprints” go unchecked. The photo contains an automatic time stamp and GPS location and can be shared instantly with Grover several miles away.
Already Grover’s team has shared its data with adjacent Kruger National Park, which is also fighting poachers, to develop a more comprehensive security plan for the entire region. “They have data, and now we have data, and we share it,” Grover said. “It may lead to some arrests in the coming months. In this case, it might have been a better investment for us than buying the patrols more firearms.”