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Wireless Sensor Networks for Wildlife Conservation in Africa

Anya Mondragon | March 7, 2023

While waiting for a connecting flight a few years ago, Vanderbilt Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Akos Ledeczi stumbled upon a moment of inspiration which led him to one of his current projects: developing and testing a prototypes of a collar for elephants which uses wireless sensor network technology to apprehend poachers in Africa.

“The funny story is that I always wanted to help with the poaching situation, but it never really worked out in the sense that all the systems relied on putting sensors on static locations, like telephone poles,” Ledeczi said. “I was standing in the Chicago airport waiting for a connecting flight and I saw a wildlife NGO poster on the wall with a big elephant and that’s when I thought, we don’t need to statically deploy these sensors, we can just put them on the animals themselves.”

The project, known as the Wireless anti Poaching collar for Elephants and Rhinos (WIPER), works with a company called Savannah Tracking based in Kenya which makes collars for animals threatened by poachers, from elephants to condors. Savannah Tracking devices record the location and movement of the animals; Ledeczi, along with George Wittemyer, Peter Volgyesi, Miklos Maroti, and Gyorgy Kalmar, is working to add acoustic shock detection capability originally used for military purposes with the U.S. Department of Defense. The addition of precise shot detection to the collars will allow law enforcement to determine the location of poachers. 

The goal is to prevent future wildlife deaths by prosecuting poachers.

“There isn’t [currently] really a good working technology that can provide an immediate alert when there is gun based poaching going on,” Ledeczi said. 

“It’s kind of counterintuitive, because the actual animal who wears the sensor is not really protected in the sense that if somebody is shooting at that animal, it’s too late already,” Ledeczi said. “But by sending the alert, there is a chance to catch the bad guys and then save the next animal.”

To fulfill anti-poaching purposes, Ledeczi and his team had to adapt the technology to function on a moving, breathing, not-altogether gentle animal. Each elephant collar is four inches wide and made from machine belting, with enough extra room to allow for the fluctuating circumference of an elephant’s neck with the dry and wet seasons. The collar stays on and upright due to a twenty-five pound counterweight, an insignificant figure to an elephant. 

One of the biggest technical challenges faced by their team was the battery life of the sensor. Putting the collar on an elephant is a time consuming, hands-on endeavor that necessitates tranquilizing the animal. For this reason, the battery must be able to power the device to listen to its audio environment continuously for two years before it will be replaced. To address this issue, the battery is supplemented with the use of small, durable solar panels on the top of the collar. 

Another challenge is that it is not easy to workshop the technology once it is in the field, even if issues arise. The team has tested two different prototypes so far.

“[Normally] when we develop a program, let alone a new hardware and the software that runs on it, we try it, it doesn’t work, we change it, and then we iterate rapidly through this,” Ledeczi said. “Now, you put this on an elephant and for two years, it’s going to be on the elephant. The rapid development cycle is no longer rapid at all.”

And while funding for anti-poaching projects can be difficult to come by, it is undeniable that the potential payoff is priceless.

“The budget to try to protect the animals and the areas is very limited,” Ledeczi said. “That’s a challenge, but we are not giving up just yet.”