There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.
James Weliver / USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons
Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.
Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.
Helge Denker / WWF-Namibia
Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.
Centre for Conservation and Research, Flickr Creative Commons
Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.
SMART / North Carolina Zoo
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.
Samir Sinha / TRAFFIC India
In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.
WWF-Canon / James Morgan
In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.
More than 1,300 rhinos were poached in Africa last year, a record since 2008 when South Africa banned trade in rhino horns, leading conservation body IUCN said on Wednesday.
“The number of African rhinos killed by poachers has increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa in 2015,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a statement.
“This is the highest level since the current crisis began to emerge in 2008,” the Switzerland-based body said.
The slaughter has been driven by demand for their horn in countries such as China and Vietnam, where they are prized for their purported medicinal properties.
The horn is composed mainly of keratin, the same component as in human nails, but it is sold in powdered form as a supposed cure for cancer and other diseases.
Trade in rhino horns was banned in 1977 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty created in 1973 to protect wildlife against over-exploitation, and ensure that trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
But it was only banned in 2008 in South Africa,which is said to be home to 20,000 rhinos or 80 percent of the world’s rhino population.
IUCN Director General Inger Andersen said despite stepped up surveillance by field rangers risking their lives daily there had been “alarming increases in poaching over the past year in other vitally important range states, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe” both of which adjoin South Africa.
Demand for rhino horn from South East Asia is being illegally supplied by sophisticated transnational organised crime networks, the IUCN said.
They are sold for about $60,000 a kilo on the black market, making it more expensive than cocaine.
“The extensive poaching for the illegal trade in horn continues to undermine the rhino conservation successes made in Africa over the last two decades,” said IUCN expert Mike Knight.
On the plus side, poaching in Kenya decreased over the past two years and went down for the first time in South Africa in 2015.
According to experts, there were between 19,000 and 21,000 white rhinos in Africa last year and between 5,000 and 5,500 black ones.