Feature Story

Game-changing technology boosts rhino protection

October 6, 2017

Group of people having a discussion in the forest near a poached rhino's corpse
A GEF-funded, UN Environment-implemented project in South Africa is enhancing the technology used to track poachers and improve rhino crime scene management with the hopes of diminishing rhino deaths in the region. Photo credit: Michael Strang/GEF Rhino Team

Thanks to a project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) that began in 2013, rhinos are safer from poaching in South Africa today than they have been for a long time. The programme uses the latest technology to track poachers and improve rhino crime scene management.

“The biggest challenge has been the consistent and relentless efforts of poachers,” says Michael Strang, one of those leading the UN Environment-GEF rhino enforcement programme. “Despite many arrests, organized crime syndicates are continuing their activities. The toll on the men and women who fight this scourge is incalculable.” 

The programme has adapted to the changing techniques and tactics used by poachers.

“The introduction of high-tech equipment has proven to be the best way to maximize scarce human resources in the protected areas where the rhinos roam. The days of just driving around or walking a perimeter are gone,” says Strang.

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs has played a key role in promoting training events and helped acquire equipment and software.

Enhanced forensic skills

The University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory is the centre for rhino forensic work in the country.

The GEF project provided some of the funding for horn DNA analysis from stockpiles and live rhinos, while the Depart of Environmental Affairs funded forensic work related to illegal rhino killings. This enabled the purchase of things like refrigerators, forensic kits, and a new laboratory. Most importantly, the project enabled the training of additional lab technicians, who will be an asset for many years to come.

“As a veterinary technologist, we seldom get to see past the actual sample that we are working with,” says Naledi Mathole, who was hired right out of school and recently promoted to Quality Manager. “As an employee of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, you get the opportunity to see the bigger picture and how a piece of DNA can have a tumultuous effect on a forensic case.”


GEF funding also enabled the training of biodiversity investigators and crime scene managementexperts, the production of training videos, the development of an Advanced Course for rangers, the carrying out of prosecutor training, and the setting up of a magistrates’ colloquium, as well as a regional magistrates’ colloquium (including South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Lesotho).

Thanks to a partnership with the Environmental Wildlife Trust, a local non-governmental organization, and funding from the United States, the programme was able to increase the number of personnel taking the advanced ranger training course from 500 to 1,400. “Training is nearing completion now and, judging from the feedback we’ve received, it has been a huge success,” says Strang.

 “This training is very fruitful and helpful to us field rangers,” says ranger Satara (he goes by one name only). “It will help us to always do arrests according to the law and how we can explain ourselves in a way that we don’t lose cases.”

Rangers “see more”

Further United States funding for the Environmental Wildlife Trust also enabled the procurement of equipment such as smart phones, and training for the Black Mamba anti-poaching team

Pictures sent by the team go straight to the decision support tool C-More, allowing the chief ranger to see what the Mambas can see and understand poaching patterns. This allows the chief ranger to deploy the Mambas where they are needed most and can react quickly to intrusions and gun shots.

“The C-more system has made reporting incidents to the ops room much faster and easier,” says Black Mamba Sergeant Belinda Mzimba. “We can take pictures of snares, carcasses and tracks directly, with the location [indicated] at the same time. We can also communicate with the Operations room with C-more.”

“C-more is much faster than when we used to use the GPS and note books,” says Black Mamba ranger Lukie Mahlake. “I feel much safer with the C-more system because the Ops Room can see where we are in the bush all the time and they can help direct us if we must respond.”

 “The project has also recently partnered with Peace Parks Foundation to focus on another pilot project which uses Smart City technology, long-range wide area networks, and Internet of Things protocols and promises to completely change the way rhinos are protected,” says Strang.

Further resources:


For further information: MStrang[at]environment.gov.za

Media enquiries: unepnewsdesk[at]unep.org

This story was originally published by UN Environment.