Sheep Phone Home—Makeshift
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A South African farmer invents a system for tracking livestock with mobile phones, launching a national cell collar fad

— Sheep Phone Home

SheepPhoneHome

South Africa’s sheep can sleep safe from thieves and predators thanks to a new invention—sheep collars that phone for help when the fluffy animals run off in fright.

“They kept stealing my sheep, so I decided to do something,” says farmer Phillip Lotter. His gadget, which he now sells under the moniker Celmax, leverages the country’s cellular infrastructure to keep owners ahead of thieves.

“One sheep in the herd wears a collar,” he explained. “As soon as the animals start showing reaction to abnormal behavior—like thieves, dogs, or predators—the collar makes an emergency phone call to the farmer’s cell phone to warn him he must go have a look over there.”

On vast farms with police far away, it’s nearly impossible to monitor theft. So Lotter figured out one telltale sign in his own herd. “An animal which behaved normally would stamp its foot, say, five times a minute. But when it is in trouble, it will stamp it 20 times.”

From his farm, he developed a machine that could measure this change in footsteps. And in 1999, university of Stellenbosch in the south of the country helped him build the first commercial prototype. Today, the Celmax is used on 1,200 farms in South Africa.

Most users will only need one device and a basic mobile phone. It will set you back a steep uSD 660, but for a commercial farmer, the Celmax more than makes up for its cost in the scores of woolen animals it saves. Independents, however, await a lower-cost alternative, and the collars need to be in range of a mobile signal, a limitation in parts of rural Africa. Still, reputation of effectiveness against criminals keeps orders streaming in.

“I get regular calls from a farmer who tells me he also wants to buy a few collars,” says Lotter, proudly. “When I ask him if he has struggled a lot with thefts, he says only in the last few months since the neighboring farm has got the collars and so the thefts have spread next door.” Sheep, after all, are not the only followers.

The device itself relies on sheep mentality: since the sheep wearing the collar will copy the group, one collar usually suffices for a herd of 500.

Lotter has received queries from Australia and Israel, where the simple device is equally applicable. Based on feedback from users, he’s improved the technology to measure even subtler behavioral changes and is adapting the system for cattle.

The challenge of sheep security remains formidable. Thievings continue to increase in size, creating huge financial risk in a vulnerable industry. But now, with the flock just a speed dial away, ovine and owners alike can rest with a bit more peace of mind.

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