Poaching of protected wildlife has reached an epidemic level and created a crisis for some African species. Rhinos and elephants are especially targeted for their horns and ivory in illegal markets overseas. Last year, a total 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone. Poaching syndicates are becoming more organized and well equipped. Technology may be a solution to combat this growing conservation challenge.
Conservationists are adding UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, to their anti-poaching arsenal. These surveillance drones can be used to effectively monitor wildlife and act as a force multiplier for anti-poaching units. UAVs deliver tactical communication of suspicious activity from the sky to park rangers on the ground. Conservation programs modeling this approach are being tested in Namibia, South Africa and Kenya.
In Namibia, a program to tag and track black rhinos is being funded by the Namibian Game Products Trust Fund, financed by sustainable use hunting and live game sales. The new monitoring system allows real-time surveillance of individual animals and priority habitat areas. New detection methods can also identify the mobile phones of potential poachers entering secure rhino zones. The Namibian government is partnered with the mobile phone company MTC to establish a toll free hotline to notify authorities of wildlife crimes.
Tanzania is also integrating technology into its conservation efforts. The Tanzanian government, with financial support from the United Nations Development Program, is implementing a satellite monitoring program on 30 elephants equipped with radio transmitters in Ruaha National Park. Ruaha is Tanzania’s largest park and famous for its herds of elephants. Satellites will be tracking the elephants’ seasonal movements to inform rangers on the key patrol zones outside of core protected areas. By tracking animal movements, conservationists can also better manage wildlife corridors. This satellite monitoring program is part of Tanzania’s long-term community-based strategy to end elephant poaching and reduce local poverty.
SCI Foundation’s partner, Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants, or H.O.P.E., is developing another type of technological innovation to fight poaching. H.O.P.E.’s network computer model plots poaching events, species range, seasonal movement, and other variables that influence the occurrence of poaching activity. The resulting model identifies areas of high priority for wildlife enforcement. With this information, authorities can greatly increase the effectiveness of anti-poaching units on the ground.
Other advancements in anti-poaching technology include thermal imaging cameras, night vision googles and new crime scene forensic techniques, such as a powder that can detect old fingerprints on illegal ivory specimens. Several countries are now scanning shipping containers for ivory in ports known for illegal wildlife trade. All of these measures help authorities catch the criminals engaged in illicit wildlife activity. By using technology, poaching and trafficking wildlife is becoming increasingly risky.
Technology can make the job of a park ranger or enforcement unit much more effective. SCI Foundation, however, recognizes that technology is not a replacement for well-trained rangers and diligent criminal investigation. There are still issues with applying these technologies. The sheer scale of wildlife habitat and the flexibility of poaching gangs are serious problems. Drones and other high-tech applications are very expensive and often cost prohibitive. Government agencies, private companies and non-governmental organizations need to continue investing in anti-poaching technology and supporting community-based training. As wildlife resources dwindle and demand stays high, one thing for certain is that the poaching crisis will continue.
Technology has an important role to play in conservation, and more steps are being taken to stop poaching before it happens. When applicable, technology should be integrated in the overall strategy for protecting wildlife. Newly developing technology offers exciting progress in anti-poaching efforts and could be instrumental for the future of winning the war against poaching.
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