Anti-poaching shockwave sensors help save Kenyan elephants from gunfire

Why it matters to you

WIPER could help protect vulnerable elephants and keep them off the endangered species list.

Conservationists have a new way to monitor Kenyan elephants and track poachers who are after their tusks. Called WIPER — Wireless anti-Poaching Technology for Elephants and Rhinos — the device uses sensors to pick up on ballistic shockwaves and transmit the exact coordinates of an elephant as soon as gunshots are detected.

“Poaching has devastated many populations on which I work and, in response, we have been developing technologies and approaches to provide enhanced protection,” George Wittemyer, Colorado State University professor and chairman of Save the Elephants, told Digital Trends. That includes the 100,000 elephants poached for their tusks between 2010 and 2012, according to Save the Elephants’ estimates.

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In order to avoid detection, poachers often put silencers on their weapons. But even if the sound is muffled, the shockwave generated by supersonic projectiles is not. With just a few sensors on a tracking collar, WIPER can detect these shockwaves and alert authorities to the assault.

WIPER was designed by Vanderbilt University’s Akos Ledeczi, who’d previously worked for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create similar sensors for detecting and locating muzzled gunfire.

“In the military domain, shockwave sensing is important because the bullets typically fly close to the sensors — vehicles and soldiers — while the shooter may be far away,” Ledeczi told Digital Trends. Meanwhile in law enforcement, sensors are designed to detect muzzle blasts instead, since bullets from handguns are usually subsonic.

Engineers have been trying to use strategically placed anti-poaching sensors to detect muzzle blasts. “The problem is that you need a sensor every few hundred meters, so the solution does not scale beyond a relatively small area,” Ledeczi explained.

Since WIPER can detect gunfire using just a few sensors in an area the size of half of a football field, the researchers say just one device is sufficient to cover an entire herd of elephants. The team’s next steps include field studies in Kenya. It will also try to develop a 12-month battery life for the device.

WIPER is yet another tool in the arsenal of anti-poachers, who are battling to keep African elephants off the endangered species list. They’ve recently deployed drones to track poachers and even scare elephants away from danger.