Assessing technology to secure succulent plant populations in the Succulent Karoo region of South Africa

Oct 25, 2023 | WFA News

The illegal trading of plants for ornamental purposes has become a world-wide problem. Since March 2019, South Africa has been experiencing a significant increase in incidences of illegal harvesting of succulents to support this trade. As of December 2022, over 414,000 illegally harvested plants have been confiscated. If the rate of poaching  continues, it is very likely that further species will become extinct in the wild.

As part of the National Response Strategy and Action Plan to address the illegal trade in South African succulent flora, Wilderness Foundation Africa in collaboration with SANBI, BotSoc and CSA, is implementing pilot emergency conservation interventions for succulent species in the Succulent Karoo Biome of South Africa.

Through this project, financially supported from IUCN Save Our Species and co-funded by the European Union,  this project looked at available technology to assist in securing succulent plant populations in the Succulent Karoo region of South Africa.

Criminals sourcing plant material from the Succulent Karoo are carrying out their activities both within Protected Areas and on privately owned property. This is an unforgiving landscape characterised by extreme temperatures and has topographical variation from vast coastal plains, a rugged escarpment and high mountain peaks. The resultant biodiversity is high, but it makes for challenging management and law enforcement conditions.

In addition, while formal road networks are limited the region is crisscrossed by a myriad of farm tracks and many of the Protected Areas and farms have public roads going through their properties making for easy and uncontrolled access. Other factors to be considered is the limited cell phone network coverage and the fact that the Protected Areas (and private farms) are extensive and either unfenced or have inadequate fencing that is easily breached. Under-staffing also means that these large tracts of land home to this unique succulent flora is not patrolled effectively, and plant poachers not only have relatively easy access to the properties, but they can carry out their illegal activities with a very low chance of detection.

It is against this background that various technology options were reviewed in order to determine what would work best to counter this growing challenge.

The technology options that were reviewed fall into seven broad categories that include incident and green force monitoring systems, networks and micro trackers, camera surveillance, automated number plate recognition, detector systems and sensor technology, aerial and operation management facilities.  

During the assessment it became apparent that the best approach in the Succulent Karoo would be a combination of some of the technology tools available as well as ensuring that Protected Area rangers and private landowners are capacitated to look after the plant populations under their care.

Planning has already begun to implement some of the opportunities identified and as part of a specific pilot activity funded by the project Automated Number Plate Recognition cameras (Also commonly referred to as LPR/Licence Plate Recognition Cameras) have been installed at key site in Namaqualand. This technology is widely used both internationally and in South Africa. It has already proved successful in combatting rhino poaching and is seen as an important tool to combat succulent plant poaching.

Of the technology options that were reviewed those that are most likely to be incorporated into future implementation plans include CMore as a widely used and tested monitoring and communication facility. In addition, field-based camera surveillance in the form of camera traps for early detection of illegal activities will be installed. These cameras not only feed information into CMore but can be used to try and prevent the removal of pant material before it happens.

Aerial support activities including the use of drones and light aircraft will also be incorporated into holistic protection plans making use of aircraft such as the Bush Cat that has the ability to fly low and slow, and is able to land in rough terrain making it ideal for surveillance and monitoring as well as a deterrent tool.

As part of this pilot project Licence Plate Recognition cameras (LPR cameras) have been put up at strategic areas in the Succulent Karoo, to assist with the protection of succulent plants.

A potential technology identified for the Succulent Karoo and protection of succulent plants, is light sport aircraft.

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save our Species. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Wilderness Foundation Africa and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union.