It's early morning inside the borders of a wildlife reserve in South Africa, and the rising sun foreshadows another day of intense heat. A female rhino quietly grazes on the protected area’s grasses.
In this part of the world rhinos are facing a poaching crisis. Pressures from the illegal rhino horn trade and habitat loss is pushing South Africa’s some 16,000 rhinos to the brink of extinction.
Historically, it’s been extremely difficult for conservationists and park managers to monitor their rhino populations around the clock, but new advances in tracking technology and artificial intelligence are making that more possible.
Back at the wildlife reserve, a team of park managers, veterinarians, and conservationists are heading out to locate and place a new kind of tracking device on as many rhinos as they can. The device, an ankle bracelet, runs on solar power and uses AI to provide real-time data on a rhino’s location and activity.
Data from the ankle bracelet utilizing AI will ultimately immediately feed into EarthRanger, a free software platform that combines information from tracking devices, park rangers, hidden cameras, and other data sources and displays it all together on a map.
This helps conservationists and rangers monitor the health and safety of their wildlife and protect endangered species against poaching and human-wildlife conflict.
But before the ankle bracelet can be applied, a rhino needs to be located. The ground team preps medical and tracking supplies, while the helicopter crew takes to the skies to locate rhinos among the African bush landscape.
The whirl of the helicopter catches the attention of the grazing rhino. Moments later, a sedation dart pierces her rump and she begins to sway and stumble.
With no time to waste, the team carefully works to calm the rhino, tend to the sedated rhino’s medical needs, and attach the ankle bracelet to her leg.
The extraordinary moment will be repeated with other rhinos throughout the day as part of this protected area’s wildlife and monitoring and conservation efforts. (Due to the threat of poaching, we are not revealing the exact location or name of the park.)
Keep scrolling to follow along with EarthRanger's Partner Manager Bruce Jones and virtually work alongside the park's crew as they put an ankle bracelet on a female rhino and gather data to monitor and protect her and other rhinos throughout the protected area.
You really just want to get the job done, feelings were for later.
Bruce Jones, Partnership Manager for EarthRanger
The process begins with the helicopter pilots who scan the park grounds for uncollared rhinos. It's important to start work at sunrise.
"You want to go in as early as possible for a number of reasons, one being it's a lot cooler," said Jones. "You don't want animals that are sedated being overheated. You want it as cool as possible. Also, the flying weather is good. There's normally no wind in the early mornings."
Once the helicopter pilot spots this particular rhino, he administers the dart from the air and communicates its location to the ground crew. The ground crew rushed through the bush on foot to get to the sedated animal.
Wading through the bush isn't easy - and there is other potentially dangerous wildlife to watch out for along the way.
Once the ground crew gets to the rhino, they rush to place an eye cover and earplugs on her. The eye cover and earplugs do not harm the rhino and help to keep her calm while the effects of the sedation medication set in.
removing sedation dart and prepping tracking devices
With the rhino almost fully sedated, a vet removes the dart from the rhino’s rump. Off to the right, another vet gets the tracking device and strap ready to apply to the rhino.
Up close, the features of a rhino are even more intriguing.
"They're very rough on their backs and legs," said Jones. "But their bellies are quite soft. They have massive nostrils and very strange shapes to them. So it's quite interesting from that point of view."
attaching the ankle bracelet
A handler attaches the ankle bracelet which will help the protected area track the rhino, protect it, and understand these incredible animals. To the left is an oxygen tank for safety in case the rhino puts too much pressure on its chest while sedated and needs extra oxygen. A vet applies a sedation antidote once the ankle bracelet is attached. Various records are also captured during this process.
The ankle bracelet uses artificial intelligence to feed data directly into EarthRanger in real-time. AI also helps inform whether the rhino is exhibiting abnormal behavior through accelerometers and GPS positioning.
"Abnormal behavior could include the animal not moving, or the animal is moving very fast and erratically," said Jones. "Or it could be struggling on the ground. All three of those cases could indicate a poaching incident."
Once this unusual behavior is fed into EarthRanger, the platform sends out an alert through WhatsApp, SMS or email to rangers on the ground or other relevant park staff so that they can respond in real-time.
As the sedation antidote starts to take effect, the earplugs and eye cover are removed. The recovering rhino slowly gathers her bearings, then trots off.
After an ankle bracelet is placed on a rhino, reserve staff monitor their activity and health.
"If you know where they are, and you know they’re behaving normally, you can relax a bit," said Jones. "If they're acting abnormally, you can quickly and efficiently send people out to a specific place to see whether they are under threat or whether they are just playing with one another or being chased by a predator."