As with too many of Africa’s iconic animals, rhinoceroses are in danger of extinction.
There are just over 29,000 rhinos living in the wild today globally. Scattered across Asia and Africa, the world’s largest rhino population is found in South Africa.
While environmental factors are part of the reason, like elephants populations rhinos face another existential threat. Poaching, largely driven by demand in Asia, is now at its highest levels in 20 years.
In 2015 alone, 1,175 rhinos were poached in South Africa. Neighbours Namibia and Zimbabwe are also experiencing a rapid rises in the number of animals killed.
Rhinos are targeted by criminals for their horn, in response to popular beliefs held most prevalently in Vietnam and China that rhino horns have alleged medicinal value. They are used in some Asian medicinal traditions to treat everything from cancer to a hangover.
Rhino horns are made largely of keratin, a protein. There is no substantiated evidence of any medicinal benefits.
Nonetheless, demand for rhino horn continues to grow and as rhino populations decline, the price of horn soars. Wildlife advocacy groups advocate that black market prices not be reported, as they say it encourages poaching.
Looking to tech solutions
Increasing prices are prompting poachers to intensify their activities through ever more violent means. Park rangers and law enforcement often come up against poachers wielding automatic weapons and high-powered rifles.
In response, conservationists and rangers across Africa are looking to implement innovative technologies to combat the poaching crisis.
Since 2014, for instance, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has been microchipping rhinos in the famous Maasai Mara national park. The chips ensure that if a rhino is poached and its horn removed, it can traced. Security services are then alerted if the horn moves through any airport.
But while this technology is effective for cracking down on trafficking, it is reactive and does not protect the animals while they are still alive.
However, tech organisations are now working to develop preventative, pro-active solutions.
In the Limpopo province of northern South Africa, specially developed intelligent cameras made by Axis Communications are being implemented to capture poachers in the act.
Each unit costs around $9,500. The company recently donated equipment to Thaba Manzi Wildlife Services, which is working to create a safe rhino sanctuary.
In addition to thermal imaging capabilities, Axis Q193-e cameras are designed to operate intelligently by independently analysing video footage as it is being recorded. Equipped with motion sensors, the cameras also pick up activity in their visual blind spots while analysing audio for suspicious noises.
The camera does not require humans watching screens in an observation room. However the programme immediately notifies officials through video screens and mobile devices if something seems amiss.
“Rhino poachers have grown in force, using automatic weapons and high-powered rifles to target their prey. Technology enables a smarter and safer future, and it will make a difference in the fight to protect the rhinos,” says Roy Alves, South Africa country manager for Axis.
In Tanzania, local company Bathawk Recon has concluded successful trials of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to track poaching activity. The company is in the process of rolling out a full deployment of the devices in collaboration with the Tanzania Private Sector Foundation’s anti-poaching initiative.
The drones can stay in flight for eight hours, covering up to 4,000 square kilometres of park. From the air, they can detect and follow both animals and people. The footage is monitored in real time by teams on the ground, who can then quickly respond to any questionable activity.
Meanwhile, South African technology company Dimension Data, alongside network specialists Cisco, is in the process of implementing a comprehensive anti-poaching system at an anonymous reserve near Kruger National Park. The location is kept secret for security reasons.
The solution involves a combination of WiFi, CCTV, biometrics, thermal sensors and drones, with the intention of creating a security network that covers the whole reserve.
“We need more technology around the world to protect our animals and land,” says Bruce ‘Doc’ Watson, executive at Dimension Data.
The system monitors everyone entering the reserve including staff, tracks their movements around the park, and ensures they exit. The identities of everyone entering the park as well as the details of their vehicle are checked in real time against a national database, ensuring criminals and stolen vehicles are apprehended before entry.
By combining multiple technologies, the hope is that perimeter breaches, aerial access and abnormal movements will be detected immediately. However park officials refused to comment on success metrics since the system was put in place.
Is technology enough?
While technology is proving to be a vital tool in the war against poaching, it is difficult to stay a step ahead of the poachers, according to William Mabasa, general manager for communications and marketing at Kruger National Park.
“The problem is that the poachers are also interested in knowing what technology we intend to implement. If we start divulging information, they might move ahead of us and devise counter activities,” Mr Mabasa explains.
The potential power of innovative tech solutions in countering poaching activities is evident, but Cathy Dean, director at Save the Rhino International, warns that technology alone cannot provide the whole solution.
“New technologies are only as good as the person or people operating them. Without properly trained and motivated staff, who know what to do with the information they’ve gathered and have the resources in place to follow up, the best technology in the world is virtually useless,” she says.
Other challenges abound. The remote location of many rhino populations means infrastructure is often limited, so companies have the onerous task of building systems from the ground up or developing standalone solutions that do not require pre-existing road or internet infrastructure.
Furthermore, nature itself presents a challenge. “Nature wears down infrastructure – the insects, the birds, especially the bats. It requires continuous upkeep to ensure 100 percent uptime,” Mr Watson at Dimension Data points out.
According to Mr Masaba, effective anti-poaching strategies will require a wide range of skills, tools and expertise working in concert. “No one can say this or that technology will come in and be the ultimate solution, you therefore need a combination of all available tools to fight the scourge,” he says.
Ultimately, however, governments need to show leadership by prioritising prevention and prosecution of poaching activity.
“We firmly believe that the conservation world can combat rhino poaching through a range of strategies, but we do need the help of governments worldwide… to treat rhino poaching as a serious crime, not simply a wildlife disaster,” Ms Dean concludes.