You’ve heard of smartphones, smart cars, smart cities, even smart refrigerators, but have you heard of Smart Parks? Smart Parks is a Netherlands-based team of technologists devising inventive ways to realize the founders’ vision of harnessing the power of modern technology for conservation.
“Big tech organizations like Google and Microsoft have great conservation programs, but it’s not their core business,” said Tim van Dam, one of the co-founders of Smart Parks and a telecom expert. “We know that if something isn’t your core business, you won’t be able to achieve the high level of performance required by technological devices.”
Smart Park’s philosophy is to apply an innovative and research-and-development-oriented approach, which is more common in Silicon Valley, to conservation issues. While they explore many different forms of technology, they are best known for building so-called LoRa networks in parks and protected areas, mainly in Africa, that allow multiple devices to be connected to create “smart parks.”
LoRa, or long range, technology is a network protocol that uses radio waves, much like the 4G and Wi-Fi networks. The main difference is that while 4G and Wi-Fi are designed to send a lot of data over short distances by using a lot of power, LoRa technology is designed to send small amounts of data – about the size of a text message – a very long way, with much less power.
†[LoRa] was the perfect match to connect a lot of things in remote areas to ensure that the park management that protects those areas has the ability to get a lot more data from the field,” said Van Dam.
LoRa’s lower power requirements allow Smart Parks to design tracking devices that are smaller than traditional satellite collars. This is especially beneficial for tracking smaller animals such as wild dogs, which cannot support the weight of a large battery, and, perhaps surprisingly, rhinoceroses. While a rhinoceros can easily support the weight of a heavy battery, collars don’t work with their body shape.
Conservation of the near-threatened southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) and the critically endangered black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) is one of the current main goals of Smart Parks. His rhino tracker is just under three inches cubed, small enough to be implanted into a hole in the rhino’s horn and then sealed by a vet.
“The industry has been looking for ways to track a rhinoceros with GPS for a long time,” said Geoff Clinning, technology development manager for African Parks, a conservation NGO that manages protected areas in partnership with governments and local communities, and which has LoRa technology in many of its parks. “It’s such a huge leap forward to know where every rhino is every morning and every night.”
The hope of Smart Parks is that the data collected through a range of sensors — such as animal locations, fence tensions and vehicle movements — and reported to a nerve center via a LoRa network will help give anti-poaching operations an advantage, something that they call situational awareness.
“Everyone thinks anti-poaching is a matter of boots on the ground. It’s not,” said Jurgen Elbertse, director and co-founder of Timbo Afrika Foundation, which recently contracted Smart Parks to build a 30,000 hectare (74,000 acres) LoRa network in southern Botswana’s Central Tuli Block. . “It makes you look smart and intelligent at the asset you want to protect.”
Elbertse drew an analogy to protecting a diamond: instead of trying to secure an entire building, you focus on building a secure vault to hold the diamond. In terms of anti-poaching, the “situational awareness” gained by the sensors means you can strategically focus your efforts on key animal locations.
But while technology can certainly help give anti-poaching teams an advantage, it’s not a panacea, Clinning said.
“LoRa is a very valuable tool in a park manager’s toolkit, but it’s one of many,” he said. “Even if you can track something, you need well-trained rangers who can walk [the animal]†
All sources agreed that LoRa is especially useful in remote areas where there are no mobile networks yet. Parks must pay an initial start-up fee, which varies depending on the site’s infrastructure and whether the staff has the skills to set it up unassisted. If the park already has a good network of radio towers for communications, it could be as simple as adding a LoRa gateway to each tower at a cost of about $1,000 per tower.
Once the network is established, parks will be able to collect a lot of information beyond animal tracking to prevent poaching, such as temperature data or water levels in key waterholes. They can even flip a switch to turn on a water pump—something that used to take a ranger a few hours’ round trip in some major parks.
Despite its benefits, LoRa isn’t the best solution everywhere, Clinning said. In protected areas with good mobile networks, LoRa installation and maintenance costs can still be more expensive than using the mobile network.
In other places, the sheer size the network would have to cover makes it less suitable. For example, Clinning said that satellite collars are still the best tool for tracking the park’s mixed population of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and forest elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here the elephants travel through vast areas and LoRa towers in certain locations are said to be vulnerable to vandalism.
For the Smart Parks team, building LoRa networks is just the beginning. Van Dam’s latest project is the ElephantEdge collar, which not only transmits its position, but also tracks animal sounds and movements. The hope is that this new wealth of data, combined with machine learning, can provide new insights into elephant behavior and ecology.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Smart Parks is obtaining long-term financing rather than solving a technological puzzle. The organization is split between a non-profit organization that focuses on R&D and a company that markets its products. However, Smart Parks is reluctant to charge enough to make a profit on its collars, preferring to seek grants to cover R&D and keep costs as low as possible for protected areas that are permanently strapped for cash.
But it’s not easy, said Van Dam. “Many large NGOs don’t understand R&D and they don’t understand technological innovation. Supporting the running costs of an organization like Smart Parks is somehow not sexy.”
Smart Parks also keeps all of its technology open source, meaning its designs and code can be viewed and modified by anyone. This is to ensure that others in the industry don’t waste time repeating the same work, and to allow others to follow through should the organization have to close. It also wants to train local people so that the knowledge is shared and others can replicate installations, for example without the cost of flying in its expert team. For Elbertse, this knowledge sharing is an important asset of using a technological approach to conservation.
“The advantage is that you are investing in a local person who will help you gain more knowledge and education,” he said. “That’s important. I’d rather have an electronics person working for me than people who have to carry guns – we think it’s a better investment.