South African rhinos need technology to curb poaching

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We Are Protect is planning field testing of high-tech devices to stop rhino poaching in Africa.

The British conservation group recently completed proof-of-concept trials in South Africa of high-tech devices such as spy cameras, heart rate monitors and GPS trackers on black rhinos. It is now aiming to move to field testing of its Real-time Anti Poaching Intelligence Devices (Rapid).

There had been 1 617 positively identified poacher activities in the Kruger National Park so far this year, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs. This implies that there are three incursions each day, anywhere along the thousand-kilometre long Kruger border.

By 27 August, 749 rhinos had been killed by poachers across the entire country. Of these, 544 were poached in the Kruger. This is an increase over the 716 rhino killed by poachers countrywide by the end of August 2014. Of that number, 459 rhinos were poached in the Kruger.

How Rapid works

The Rapid unit is fitted inside the horn of a wild rhino. This operation is painless because rhino horn is made of keratin, just like human nails or hair. The data from the device are then relayed live to a control centre, which could be many miles away.

If the animal's heart rate suddenly becomes heightened or declines, it triggers immediate analysis of the in-horn camera footage while an armed anti-poaching team scrambles on a rapid response mission to intercept the poachers at the location provided.

The original impetus for Rapid came from the inability of teams on the ground to detect poaching quickly and effectively enough to catch the poachers and prevent the horn from reaching the illegal markets. The reality is that the group aims to save the rhino, not just its horn.

Jason Gilchrist, an ecologist, wrote that to achieve this goal, Rapid should operate as a deterrent, not just an arrest mechanism. "This has raised the question of whether Rapid-tagged rhinos should 'advertise' that they are carrying the device. But that could simply drive poachers to target untagged rhino.

"So, in order to achieve the aim of the project, to render poaching a 'pointless exercise', we need all individual rhinos to be fitted with Rapid and tagged to indicate so. That sounds expensive and it is not clear who would foot the bill."

Watch the world of a rhino through his horn:

The We Are Protect team is already looking beyond rhino, and aims to expand the use of Rapid to other endangered creatures under attack from poachers, including elephants and tigers.

"We need to throw everything we have, from all angles, at wildlife crime," said Gilchrist. "If we cannot save iconic species like rhinos, elephants, and tigers it does not bode well for the less celebrated animals out there that are also suffering."

South Africa's fight against rhino poaching

Species conservation, including the conservation of rhino, formed part of her department's strategic intervention, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said on 30 August. She was giving a progress update on the fight against rhino poaching. Her department is working in partnership with the Security Cluster departments, namely Defence and Military Veterans, Police and State Security, to put interventions in place to curb poaching of wildlife.

"As I have constantly emphasized, were it not for the measures we have undertaken as part of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros the situation would be worse, given the escalation of poacher activity," said Molewa.

Their teams had made physical contact with heavily armed poachers 95 times so far this year, close to three times a week. "To illustrate the escalation of the threat, let me remind you that for the whole of 2014, there were 111 contacts with heavily armed poachers," she said.

"In response to this escalated threat, we have stepped up our efforts, which include traditional anti-poaching policing strategies. In this regard, the utilisation of K-9 units, night capability as well as air and land capability, is now bearing fruit."

At the core of this strategy, the minister added, was a wildlife sector transformation agenda to ensure provision of sustainable alternative livelihood strategies for South Africans, which would help to curb poaching. "This strategy seeks to promote inclusive economic opportunities, reflected by a sector which will be equitable and dictate fair processes and procedures in the distribution of natural resources and access to markets, and undertaking of projects that will assist to uplift the financial and economic status of our people," she concluded.

Watch the Security Cluster speak about their intervention programmes to stop rhino poaching:

Meanwhile, Collet Ngobeni and Felicia Mogakane were in New York City on 27 September to accept the United Nations top environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth award, on behalf of their organisation, Black Mambas.

Both women are two of the original members of the 24-strong group, South Africa's first all-female anti-poaching team. Black Mambas was set up in 2013 to protect the private Balule wildlife reserve, a park that borders the Kruger, and its resident rhino.

Over the past two years the team, which does not carry guns, has reduced snaring by 76% in the reserve, saving the lives of rhino and putting poachers out of action.

UN Environment Programme deputy executive director Ibrahim Thiaw said the success of the Black Mambas in reducing poaching raised the question of how and where this programme could be replicated.
Source: The Conversation and SAinfo reporter