In the skies above Africa, drones are being used to save the lives of elephants and rhinos

 Campaigns against ivory have not ended the trade

Campaigns against ivory have not ended the trade

As the twenty-first century progresses and technology continues to develop at breathtaking speed, our everyday lives are becoming increasingly entwined with smart, sophisticated pieces of kit.

For many, the jury is still out on whether or not all this innovation and technology is actually a good thing.

Our dependence on devices certainly seem to be increasing. According to Ofcom, 78% of adults in the U.K. now use smartphones, with 40% checking their devices within five minutes of waking up.

Statistics like the above cause dissenting voices to point to the sight of so called "smartphone zombies" on streets, eyes locked on screens while crossing roads.

It's just one sign, they say, of how people are becoming detached from reality and cocooned in a world of status updates, Tweets and hashtags.

But in other ways, the impact of high-speed Internet, the Cloud and intelligent devices is broadening access to information and connecting people in ways that would have seemed impossible at the turn of the century.

There's a strong case to be made that digital innovation is enriching, and in some cases actually saving, lives.

In Africa, for instance, innovative, smart technology is being used to take on the scourge of poaching, which threatens some of our planet's most majestic and iconic creatures.

Take the rhino. Last year, a staggering 1,028 were poached in South Africa, according to statistics from the country's Department of Environmental Affairs; the real count is likely higher.

 1,028 were poached in South Africa last year

1,028 were poached in South Africa last year

 The is strong demand for ivory in many parts of the world

The is strong demand for ivory in many parts of the world

By most credible estimates, no more than 25,000 remain in the wild, making them endangered, if not on the brink of extinction.

When it comes to elephants, the figures make for eye-watering reading. The WWF says that poachers kill roughly 20,000 African elephants every year, a harrowing figure that's equivalent to 55 being killed each day.

From a population in the wild of approximately 10 million a century ago, the optimistic count is now below 400,000, and plummeting.

In South Africa, at least one organisation is tackling the problem head-on. Elephants, Rhinos & People was established in November 2014 by groupelephant.com , to protect and preserve wild elephants and rhinos through an innovative strategy based on the alleviation of rural poverty in areas adjacent to the threatened species.

This NGO says that Africa's wild elephant and rhino populations are "being driven to the edge of extinction" because of several factors: wildlife trafficking, human-elephant conflict, trophy hunting, and the seemingly insatiable demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory, but all are predicated to a greater or lesser extent on the exploitation of rural poverty.

To be sure, the issues that cause poaching to take place are multiple and complex. For one thing, the illegal wildlife trade is incredibly lucrative: it's worth an estimated £15 billion according to the WWF.

And, despite numerous campaigns and bans, there remains a strong demand in some parts of the world for ivory, rhino horn and a host of other animal products, including tiger skin and bones.

"A dead rhino is worth way more than a live one," says Quintin Smith, a Director of Elephants, Rhinos and People (ERP). Smith adds that rhino horn can fetch up to $80,000 on the black market.

 Poachers kill roughly 20,000 elephants every year

Poachers kill roughly 20,000 elephants every year

 The impact of the program is already obvious

The impact of the program is already obvious

ERP's work is based on the premise that by alleviating poverty and offering alternative sources of income to communities, the lure of poaching can be circumvented.

"Since rural communities surrounding elephants and rhinos in the wild are poverty-stricken for the most part, they don't have many choices," according to Jonathan Tager, CEO of groupelephant.com.

"So, they oftentimes resort to poaching as a means of putting food on the table; these are not trophy hunters, these are people acting in the interests of survival, and I can understand that," Tager adds.

To augment its strategy in support of its overarching aim of protecting elephants and rhinos by stamping out poverty and developing sustainable economic models, ERP is using cutting-edge technology in a range of tactical initiatives, which are needed in the near to medium term, since the overall strategy is a longer-term proposition.

ERP has joined forces with German software and service provider SAP to develop a system that is helping to protect animals threatened by poaching.

The result? An air surveillance-based 'Big Data' initiative known as the 'ERP Air Force'.

Rangers attach GPS collars to elephants and rhinos, with drones tracking their locations in the wild. Using an SAP-powered app on a smartphone, the ERP fieldwork team is able to monitor and track the movement of herds in near real-time.

The impact of the program is already obvious, and the results tremendously promising. In the areas protected and monitored by drones, there is a 100%reduction in poaching incidents, according to SAP.

"We have had numerous documented cases of where we've identified and deterred trespassers and would-be poachers with the drone programme," ERP's Quintin Smith says.

"Rapid deployment of our of anti-poaching ground units, and liaison with authorities take care of the rest."

Smith adds that there is "no question" that the technology provided by SAP, and the way it's being deployed, is saving the lives of elephants "on a daily basis."

While the threat of poaching, trophy hunting and other scourges remain unchecked, the future of magnificent creatures such as the rhino and elephant will continue to be at risk.

The black rhino is listed by the WWF as being "critically endangered" while the African elephant is described as being "vulnerable."

Yet, as the collaboration between ERP and SAP shows, when innovation, ambition and determination combine, there is hope. For Smith, a plethora of other IoT and allied technology - from motion sensors to predictive analytics - is slated for imminent deployment, to act as additional methods of prevention.

"Why do you do what you do, and why do you live your life?" he says. "I think a big part of it is to leave this a better place than we found it."

Download the article here

Christelle Pretorius