IBM’s own Justice League: How the IBM rhino-tracking solution came to be

By: Charlie Arteaga


When Charlie Arteaga was approached to help come up with a tracking solution to address and reduce threats to the rhino population at the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa, he immediately knew it would need to be an all-hands-in project.

The client, MTN, a leading South-Africa based multinational mobile telecommunications provider, wanted IBM to help come up with a solution to build their IoT business. South Africa is home to about 20,000 rhinos, more than 70 percent of the world’s total population. From 2007-2014 the country experienced an exponential rise in rhino poaching – a growth of over 9,000% rising to a record 1,215 animals from 13, according to the World Wildlife Fund1. Wild rhinos are regularly killed for their horns, which are often used in traditional Asian medicine. MTN was already working on the anti-poaching project with the reserve, but Charlie and his Rolodex helped put together players and actors to bring the solution to fruition.

Already armed with some eye opening knowledge provided by Wageningen University from the Netherlands, which had conducted a study to new alternatives to protect endangered species, what the research found is that animals react differently depending on the type of threat they encounter and the perceived danger whether it’s coming from predators such as a lion or a person in the area such as an employee, a tourist or a poacher. This research fueled the potential solutions that would replace armed guards with IBM technology.

Charlie’s recommendation involved harnessing the power of IBM Cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) and predictive analytics technologies. IBM’s Watson team was called on to provide back-office solutions, and IBM Research was tapped to provide additional expertise for the IoT environment including the optimization of the communication flow from the sensors to the cloud. The team also needed some funding to develop solutions and to help build prototypes. The goal of their initial plan was to prove that the IBM solution could monitor & track (24/7) the movement, direction and speed of animals in the reserve.

By using IBM’s Internet of Things (IoT) platform and predictive analytics, researchers can now track the movement patterns of smaller neighboring animals as they respond to the presence of human intruders anywhere in the reserve, a 135 sq. mile expanse of African bush. IBM’s technologies monitor and collect information related to the animals’ location, movement, direction and average speed of travel – along with other data – over a wide range. This data is then used to develop analytic models and understand patterns, specifically helping to predict when they are in possible danger, including the threat of poachers moving through the area.

Smaller animals that comingle with the rhinos, such as zebra, wildebeest and antelope which are easier to tag, were fitted with collars containing sensors that transmit data to IBM’s IoT platform through the long-range signal and control platform (LoRa) and a 3G network. IBM and the Netherlands Research Institute (NRI) will work together to create and test algorithms for behavioral analysis which will serve as an early warning system to detect dangerous situations and enable the deployment of security personnel before an attack takes place – something that existing technologies cannot do.

So what’s next for Charlie and this super team? In future scenarios, Arteaga believes the cognitive and predictive models of the technology can be used to help spot forest fires in larger forests using stationary sensors with heat. They may just be the real life Justice League.

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About The Author

Charlie Arteaga

IBM Distinguished Engineer - Leader, IBM GTS Global Industry Services - Telecom

Charlie Arteaga is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and Leader of the IBM Global Technology Services (GTS) Industry Services for Telecom Service providers. Charlie has an M.S. Degree in Information Technology and is certified as an Open Group Distinguished Network Architect. With over 35 years of experience in designing and deploying data communication network solutions, Charlie... Read more