I am doing a little work preparing a light-weight update for DEFRA, to answer their three questions on the best Tracking solutions for Rhinos. I went through a few WILDLABS threads to find answers, so thank you all for your comments in this conversation. These were really helpful. I also spoke to Kai Collins – Trustee of the Rhino Conservation Botswana and Director of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. As well as Alasdair Davies, Arribada CEO working to develop satellite-enabled wildlife tracking devices. Both Kai and Alasdair very kindly provided valuable input - thank you, Kai and Alasdair!
I would love to hear from anyone else who has thoughts, additions, questions on the below.
1) Rhino tracking – What are the lessons learnt?
It is a continual challenge to find the best tracking solutions for Rhinos. Failure rates are often high. Batteries run out, components falter, data transmission is blocked, and devices break due to rhinos fighting and rolling on hard ground. But there are also successes.
2) What mature solutions are available?
There are three types:
2.1) Satellite enabled trackers. These track wildlife movements in and outside reserves, as rhinos move beyond fixed communication infrastructure
- Africa Wildlife Tracking are the most mature and reliable tracking solution. They offer ankle attachments for rhinos with satellite connectivity. However, despite a good long-term reputation, even these sometimes have failures with hardware. Additionally, ankle attachments need to be monitored closely, as they can fill with mud and cut into and injure a Rhino’s leg. These tags use Iridium Globalstar communication, which has a high cost and is a big stretch for the average conservation budget.
- Argos CLS is another leading tracking solution found in brands such as Wildlife computers, (the latter mainly focuses on marine species so not suitable for Rhinos). These have robust tags lasting many years, but again the costs are high. Argos is an old constellation (7 satellites). Their current issue is gaps in connectivity due to the limited number of satellites. To remedy this, they are launching 20 nanosats at the end of 2021, that will be compatible with Argos Tags.
- Telenax, they build GPS-IRIDIUM-BLUETOOTH+VHF unit. Cited by the community as reliable
- Note: Ear tracking attachments do not withstand Rhino behaviour and are destroyed quickly.
2.2) IoT Fixed Infrastructure Tags; this group of tracking tags are small, cheap, long-range and long-lasting. They are normally drilled into the rhino horn. However, you need to install several expensive communication masts (costing several £100,000s), across the park to pick up their signals, but once this infrastructure is in place, the tags are cheap. Leading solutions in this IoT space seem to be SMART Parks and Sigfox, who have devices that can be drilled into the horn. Emerging solutions, performing first applications include:
- Smart Parks IoT LoRa Rhino Tag. Early versions have been reliable for a small number of deployments. However, there have been recent challenges with their newly miniaturised version, where 5 out of 6 units failed after a short time in Malawi. This could be an anomaly, as their previous versions worked well and we welcome further updates.
- Sigfox. We are seeking information on the reliability of these devices. We have heard some dissatisfaction with customer service and the capability to integrate data with other software and hardware solutions.
- Cisco, Connected Conservation also provided IoT trackers. However, we understand that Cisco may have recently retired its conservation programme and we are seeking further information.
2.3) VHF; It is common for conservation managers to revert back to traditional VHF tags for Rhinos, as they are reliable and long-lasting. However, these signals are not secure, and poachers could use signal scanning to intercept transmissions and actually locate rhino, with harmful impacts.
3) What are the emerging solutions?
We are currently seeing an explosion in CubeSats and IoT from the Space sector. Where there is great potential to bring smaller, cheaper, secure satellite tracking to solve these problems. Exciting upcoming solutions include:
- Horizon tag. From Arribada. This offers a low-cost and open-source GPS hardware platform, built for satellite-enabled GNSS tracking. These are 90% cheaper than traditional satellite tags and can be configured for different use cases. They are currently proven on marine species and Arribada is working to transition their offer for terrestrial applications.
- Kinesis - This will be a rival to ARGOS. Has antenna size issues at present, but Kinesis have 20 nanosats going up in 2021 and know their customers well to resolve this.
- Icarus. Icarus has expensive tags (600 euro) and only 1 gateway on the international space station, which is a limiting factor. The community hasn’t seen anyone actually using it yet, but we would like to hear more. (There is rumours about there being an issue/politics with the Russians due to sharing ISS real estate).
- Hiber. They don't have an antenna small enough for animals. Their smallest is coffee cup size/beer mat patch antenna, so it's only applicable to non-animal devices. But this could change. They do have a good business model to watch, offering data cost per fixes per day).
- Starlink. Currently going up at the moment (SpaceX), but for IoT, it will be antenna size again, as they will cater for broadband users primarily.
- Lacuna & Irnas, - Lacuna (LoRaWAN to space, launching 4 LoRa CubeSat gateways this year). However, they currently have antenna size issues and are only just getting started (1 Satellite), so their space programme is beta and so this may have a long way to go.
- PandaSat. This is an exciting early-stage concept from WWF Germany. Working to launch their own Cube Sats for low-cost wildlife tracking. It is a strong prototyped concept, working with Stanford University, currently looking for further support and partners.
- Marco Luminous. Just released a Beta version of their tracking tag, but yet to be applied at scale. Thread is here: https://www.wildlabs.net/community/thread/841#post-3415
- Whoever providers cheap tags, small transmitters, multiple gateways with super low costs data will win for wildlife conservation in this exciting new space.
If the community has any changes or additions to the above I would love to hear so we can help conservation managers evaluate the best solutions.