Jackie Clausen/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Armed guards look after rhinos at a park in South Africa.
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.
Pelham Jones bought his first rhinos for a private game park in South Africa some 25 years ago, completing his collection of the "Big Five" animals that visitors especially want to see.
It was a logical business decision, and profiting from the lucrative trade in rhino horn could not be further from his mind.
"And then the heartache began," he says.
Now, as South Africa faces a seventh straight yearly increase in rhino poaching, Jones is on a panel of experts studying an unusual proposal for battling the problem: legalising the trade in rhino horn.
He argues that this would pull the rug out from under crime syndicates by forcing down the price of rhino horn and removing the incentive to poach ?- all while providing cash to plough back into conservation efforts.
Demand for rhinoceros horn -- which is made of keratin, the same material in hair and nails -- has skyrocketed in recent years, largely driven by the market in Asia, where the powdered horn is valued for its supposed medicinal properties.
The wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic says some 2,000 rhino horns leave Africa yearly -- the annual estimate was 1,000 between 2009 and 2012 -- each one fetching tens of thousands of dollars.
On the ground in South Africa, the impact is devastating, none more so than on the rangers and owners who find the rhinos' bloodied bodies with their horns and sometimes even their faces hacked off.
"When you stand next to a carcass, a dead pregnant female cow and a young heifer not 50 metres away, you weep," says Jones. "It's like the loss of a family member."
Internationally, the rhino horn trade was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1977.
But a domestic trade continued within South Africa's borders for decades.
Then, in 2008, the country experienced a sudden increase in rhino poaching. The next year, the government passed a moratorium on the domestic trade.
It was supposed to close the loopholes that criminal syndicates were using to buy horns from local stockpiles before illegally exporting them.
But some experts say it may have exacerbated the problem.
According to a South African government report, the moratorium merely signalled to syndicates that rhino horn would become harder to obtain.
"The rhino-poaching crisis is being driven by a persistent demand for rhino horn that cannot be supplied through legal channels because of the national and international trade bans," it said.
"The ensuing high price of horn... provided strong incentives for poachers to risk their lives to acquire horns through poaching."
Armed guards look after rhinos at a park in South Africa. Jackie Clausen/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images
A year after the moratorium was passed, South Africa lost 333 rhinos to poaching, followed by 448 in 2011; 668 in 2012; and 1,004 in 2013.
As of the beginning of November, poachers have killed 979 rhinos this year.
"We've tried everything else," says Jones, now head of the Private Rhino Owners Association. "From more guns to more boots to more cameras to more surveillance systems -- but the poachers are always one step ahead of us."
The idea of legalising the trade has divided the conservation world.
"There are two lobbies," says Dex Kotze, a conservationist who helped organise a global march for rhinos and elephants last month.
"The government is working with the pro-trade lobby to legalise rhino horn and there's a whole lot of people that simply believe it's not going to work."
Kotze is one of them. A businessman from the luxury goods industry, he keeps an eye firmly on the rising prices in Asia ?- a kilogramme of rhino horn recently sold for $100,000 in Vietnam, double the price of gold, he says ?- and believes the demand for rhino horn would far outstrip any legal supply.
Not to mention the mixed messages legalisation would send to end-users of rhino horn, whose beliefs and behaviours conservationists are trying to change.
"The massive buildup of wealth in Asian countries is a huge deterrent to making the trade legal... The numbers just do not make business sense from that point of view."
There is also criticism that the pro-trade lobby is promoting an argument from which it stands to benefit: in 2010, government and private owners were estimated to have more than 15 tonnes of rhino horn stockpiled, about a third of it belonging to the state.
If South Africa does decide to pursue a legal rhino horn trade, it will have to win over two-thirds of member states at the next CITES conference in 2016.
"For any proposal to be confidently put on the table for other parties to even support, I think one needs to be clear with the facts," said Rose Masela, who heads the Department of Environmental Affairs' National Wildlife Information Management Unit.
"What are the benefits we stand to get?" she asked. "Some parties feel we will be encouraging demand."
In the end, according to Jones, no one is deluded into thinking that a legal rhino horn trade could be the silver bullet to end South Africa's poaching woes.
"It will come out of a combination of demand reduction, end-user education, a controlled supply," he said, suggesting "a transparent central selling organisation, with revenue going back to where it belongs: to save rhinos lives."