'Virtual rangers' help South African reserve keep poachers away

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The animals that roam South Africa’s Balule Nature Reserve have a new ally in the battle to keep them safe from poachers - camera phones mounted in protective cases that stream images of their activities to thousands of “virtual rangers” worldwide.

With reserves across Africa cutting back on anti-poaching patrols amid a coronavirus-induced tourism lull that has hit funding, Balule has teamed up with handset manufacturer Samsung and tech pioneer Africam to supplement staff numbers with eyes and ears online.

Over 55,000 people have become virtual rangers since the project, Wildlife Watch, went live this month.

“We need more eyes; we need more people helping us,” said Leitah Mkhabela, a member of the park’s all-female anti-poaching unit known as the Black Mambas.

“They can become a ranger while staying at home and they can save a rhino every single day.”

Located in Limpopo province and home to the “big five” of rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo, Balule forms part of South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park.

Mkhabela and her colleagues use the same model of phone for communication and to capture images of suspicious activity during patrols, while other handsets have been installed to monitor perimeter fences.

Swiss-based environmental network, International Union for Conservation of Nature, said anti-poaching patrols have been cut in more than half of Africa’s protected sites due to the impact of the pandemic.

One in five rangers has been laid off globally since the pandemic began, said deputy leader of the Wildlife Practice at WWF-International, Wendy Elliott.

Meanwhile, job losses and increased poverty have driven a growth in the hunting of bush meat.

But, to Mkhabela’s relief, Balule is striking back.

Viewers of the park’s streaming service have already reported hearing gunshots - signalling the possibility of poachers - and alerted rangers to trapped animals needing rescue.

“I want to be the reason my grandkids see rhinos in the years to come,” said Mkhabela.

(This story corrects spelling of Balule in paragraph 11)

Writing by Tanisha Heiberg; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and John Stonestreet