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Prigel Family Creamery plays African Serengeti

Paige Nelson Published on 17 September 2015

Prigel Family Creamery Inc. pasture

For years now, the Prigel Family Creamery has been trying hard to mimic Serengeti-type grazing with its 180 milk cows in Glen Arm, Maryland. Well, it must be working because in May 2015 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called. They wanted to use the farm’s pastures and cattle to test brand new anti-poaching equipment, soon bound for the African savanna.

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“We are a grass-based dairy,” Bobby Prigel, owner and manager of Prigel Family Creamery Inc., says. “What we try to do, in a sense, is mimic the Serengeti.

“We move our cattle constantly, so they’re not overgrazing. They go in just like a herd of wildebeest. They go in, they eat and they move. What we are doing is trying to simulate nature.”

When the WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project director, Colby Loucks, showed up with state-of-the-art thermal imaging technology, the farm’s holistic goal of simulating natural grazing events got upgraded to roleplaying. Quiet milk cows played the part of rhinos. The rolling hills of Maryland became an African grazing ground.

According to a Washington Post article, the WWF received a grant from Google’s Global Impact Award to address the intensifying poaching problem in Africa.

The article cites numbers like an average of 1,215 rhinos are poached in South Africa alone, in 2014. From 1980 through 2007 South African rhino poaching averaged only nine animals per year.

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The forest elephant population in Central Africa saw a 62 percent decline from 2002 to 2011.

By using special thermal cameras, the WWF plans to better monitor the wild herds and notify park rangers immediately, via text or email, when suspected poachers approach. Attached to each thermal camera is a small computer, which is powered by solar panels. The computer uses software to identify moving objects. Using an algorithm, the software can distinguish humans from animals and eventually ignore movements like swaying grass.

Thus, someday on the African savannah, a camera trained on a herd of elephants will distinguish a human walking toward the herd, rather than another animal, and alert park rangers to the disturbance.

But the technology is young and needs more identification practice. Enter Prigel Family Creamery. A neighbor of Prigel's associated with WWF called and asked if they could set up some equipment for testing on the farm’s hill. Happy to oblige, Prigel agreed.

With the camera and computer set up on the hill looking down at Prigel milk cows, WWF researchers walked among the grazing cattle – testing the camera’s ability to properly identify human versus nonhuman and the camera’s accuracy in relation to distance.

Although he wasn’t sure at first why people were walking among his cattle, Prigel was happy to help the cause.

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“Obviously, any kind of poaching is bad and needs to be controlled. If I can have any involvement with that, the more, the better,” he says.

The cattle may not have even realized they were playing a part in such important science. Prigel says, for his cattle, it was just a regular day on the farm.

“[The researchers] would walk around in the midst of [the cattle]. [The cattle] weren’t disturbed or anything. They took it in stride,” he says.

Prigel doesn’t have any future plans with the WWF but says he is happy to help again if the occasion arises.

“Why spend money to go to Africa to test it when we can test it here and work some bugs out and fine-tune it?” he says.

As for any public perception benefits from the project, Prigel says, “Anytime that we can get non-farm people on the farm, it’s a plus.”  PD

Paige S. Nelson resides in Rigby, Idaho, and is an agricultural freelance writer.

PHOTO: Bobby Prigel, owner and manager of Prigel Family Creamery Inc., says his family operation tries to mimic the African Serengeti with their dairy grazing practices. Photo taken from the Prigel Family Creamery Facebook page with permission. Photo by Heather Grace Photography.

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