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Tiny Intel chip helping save huge rhinos

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A white rhinoceros on a preserve in South Africa. The animal is fitted with a super-durable Intel-based tracking collar. Look through the grass closely at its left front foot.

Thin and light he is not. An adult male black rhinoceros can tip the scale—if you can coax him onto one—at 1.5 tons (1,400 kilograms).

Now Intel’s super-tiny Intel® Quark SOC is being pressed into service in southern Africa to help save these critically endangered animals, as well as white rhinos, which poachers are pushing to the brink of extinction.

In South Africa alone, they kill nearly 1,000 rhinos every year, hacking off their prized horns which are then ground into powder and sold in parts of Asia for its supposed medicinal or aphrodisiac value. A single rhino horn can fetch a whopping $3 million. Poachers leave the carcass to rot.

Today, the global population of white rhinos is about 20,000. The number of critically endangered black rhinos has plummeded to a scant 500.

So how to halt this slaughter?

Galileo to the rescue

In a unique pilot project now underway in South Africa, our company is contributing a number of credit card-sized Intel Galileo boards—complete with 3G communications and onboard storage features—which are affixed to the big beast.

The project is the outgrowth of a partnership between Intel South Africa and Dimension Data, a cloud services and data center company. Organizing the work in the field is the Madikwe Conservation Project and i-Detect, a global software company that helps companies manage risk.

And indeed attempting to affix technology to a rhino is risky. The rhino is not an easy customer. It hangs around in the baking hot African sun. It lounges in mud. It rolls in dirt. It stomps its massive 3-toed feet on stuff it doesn’t fancy. On a charge, it can crash through the underbrush at up to 30 miles per hour (55km/hour).

So the low-power Intel Galileo board is encased in an utterly rhino-proof Kevlar-based ankle collar, which also features a durable solar panel to recharge the board’s battery.

What is the best way to attach a "wearable" to a rhino? Very carefully. And not until the huge animal is sedated.

Cellular provider Vodafone is contributing wireless connectivity—with each collared rhino’s geo-location and movement data encrypted (to ensure poachers cannot get to it) and then sent to the cloud.

Separately, when the wild animals are sedated for their collar-fitting, teams embed a tiny RFID chip in each animal’s horn. If the Galileo board detects a break in proximity between ankle and horn, anti-poaching teams can be alerted with helicopters, drones, and ground-based vehicles to apprehend the poachers.

The current pilot is small—just 5 animals. But the technology is working. And its cost is modest.

The project’s next phase will monitor each rhino’s vital stats such as heart rate. In this way, anti-poaching teams will be able to detect a stressed rhino and swoop in on criminal poachers before they do the deed.

Said Gordon Graylish, Intel’s EMEA-based Sales and Marketing VP who recently checked out the rhino-saving project, “This incredible creature is in real threat of extinction if we cannot help stop the poaching.

“The ease with which our local team could take our technology and apply it to a real world issue in a novel way was amazing. It also points to the way to even more work like this for us in the future,” said Graylish.

"At Intel, we constantly strive to enable new possibilities, not just for the human race, but for all species of flora and fauna,” said Intel South Africa Country Manager Videsha Proothveerajh. “This project helps us holistically care for our planet."


A team with the Madikwe Conservation Project works to attach an Intel-based tracking device to a sedated white rhino.

About the Author
Walden Kirsch is a journalist, editor, and photographer based in Portland, Oregon.