Rhinos are targeted by poachers because of their horns valued in traditional medicine and as a status symbol in Asia

Gun-fire detection system protects rhinos in South Africa

Conservationists have installed a cutting edge gun-shot detection system in a South African natural park to protect rhinos increasingly threatened by illegal poaching.

The ShotSpotter system, previously deployed in crime-ridden urban neighbourhoods in the US to alert police to shootings, has been installed in an undisclosed location in the Kruger National Park.

The authorities said first poachers, attacking rhinos for their horns, have already been caught and put in front of courts thanks to the cutting edge technology.

"This is my 14th war and the one I am determined to win," said Otch Otto, a former soldier and UN peacekeeper who is now using his combat skills as Kruger's joint operations manager in the poaching front lines.

The system, developed by California-based company SST Inc, consists of sensitive microphones that can detect gunshots up to the distance of three kilometres.

Using triangulation, the system can determine the position from where the shot has been fired with 10 metre accuracy. An alert about the detection together with coordinates is sent automatically within 30 seconds to the Kruger operations centre, which can then promptly deploy its teams and helicopters.

The park, about the size of Israel, has recorded declines in the number of rhinos in the past years, which is mostly attributed to illegal killing.

More than 700 rhinos have been slain for their horns so far in this year South Africa, over 450 of them in Kruger.

More than 1,000 were poached last year, three times the tally in 2010, to meet soaring demand for rhino horn, coveted as an ingredient in traditional medicine and as a status symbol in fast-growing Asian economies such as China and Vietnam.

South Africa is the epicentre of the poaching surge because it has the vast majority of the world's rhinos. Elsewhere in Africa, elephants are being poached relentlessly for the ivory in their tusks.

The latest census from Kruger shows it has between 8,400 and 9,600 white rhinos and there are plans afoot to move 500 of them out of the park and hopefully out of harm's way.

Most poachers slip into Kruger via the park's 360-kilometre eastern border with Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, where poaching and trade in rhino horn provide an income to impoverished villagers.

The authorities have previously employed other high-tech surveillance tools including drones to win over the poachers. However, they found that in the thick bushes, it is easy for the criminals to escape unnoticed.

"Our opponents are skilful, formidable people who know how to navigate in the thick of the night, taking cover under leaves and grass. You can't win this war with helicopters and drones, the bush is too dense," Otto said in his "war room", plastered with aerial maps of the park sprawling across the country's northeast.

The deployment of the ShotSpotter system is said to be the first outside a urban environment.

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