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India Floods Threaten Rare One-Horned Rhinos

Hundreds of rare rhinos and other animals are fleeing flooding in India's northeast, raising fears of a rise in poaching during the exodus.

Hundreds of rare rhinos and other animals are fleeing flooding in India's northeast, raising fears of a rise in poaching during the exodus, a senior wildlife official said Tuesday.

A rain-flooded river has deluged the Kaziranga National Park in remote Assam state, home to the largest concentration of the world's remaining one-horned rhinoceros.

"More than half of the Kaziranga National Park is under water. Animals are migrating from the sanctuary to adjoining hills for safety," Assam forest and wildlife minister Etuwah Munda told AFP.

"We are taking all precautionary measures and I myself will be camping in the park to monitor the situation."

Tech Targeting Wildlife Poachers: Photos

The park, spread over 450 square kilometres (173 square miles), is prone to flooding during the annual monsoon rains.

Some 14 rhinos and hundreds of other animals died during floods in 2012, many of them mown down on a nearby highway by speeding vehicles as they left the park for higher ground.

Park officials have this year taken precautions, including erecting barricades along sections of the highway.

"Forest guards are asking drivers to drive under 40 kilometres (25 miles) an hour as the animals use the highway to cross over to the hill to escape the floods," the minister said.

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A recent census estimated there were 2,400 one-horned rhinos in the park out of a global population of around 3,300.

Park officials are worried about poachers targeting them and other animals as they leave the sanctuary for the hills.

"Poachers have a tendency to target animals by taking advantage of the floods. We have put forest guards on alert in the hills where the animals take refuge," Munda said.

Kaziranga has fought a sustained battle against rhino poachers who kill the animals for their horns, which fetch huge prices in some Asian countries where they are deemed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Floods have claimed 14 lives, submerged up to 1,200 villages and displaced more than 800,000 people across Assam in recent weeks, a state government statement said Tuesday.

One-horned rhinos are under threat from flooding.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.