Technology is bringing new options to combat poaching in Africa.
Elephant poaching is on the rise, and the international demand for illegal ivory continues to grow. In China, the ivory trade is extremely profitable; a single elephant tusk weighing 6 pounds can go for $12,700. The business in China is undergoing a crackdown and has largely moved online. In the United States, it is estimated that 30% of the ivory on the market is illegal.
Tsavo Trust, a wild life nonprofit in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, recently announced that the internationally famed elephant Satao, a tusker, was killed by poachers. Every year around 25-35,000 elephants in Africa are killed for their tusks. Rhinos are also a huge target: more than 1,000 were killed in South Africa alone.
The battle against poaching is becoming increasingly militarized, and the demand for ivory is making the jobs of park rangers in Sub-Saharan Africa extremely dangerous. In the Democracy Republic of Congo (DRC), there are allegations that the dreaded LRA rebel movement led by Joseph Kony is taking part in poaching to restock on food and weapons. US Marines are even being deployed to train rangers in Chad’s Zakouma National Park, and Interpol is expanding its operations in East Africa to tackle the growing problem.
But new innovation and technology is at the forefront of the fight to protect endangered animals. The Wildlife Conservation Society is testing the use of surveillance drones, but costs of $200,000, short flight times, and light payloads leave more to be desired.
David S. Wilkie, WCS Director of Conservation Support, hopes that older model drones obtained from militaries will soon prove useful. He said, “If we can deploy ex-military–style craft with long flight times, durable airframes and [radar-] capable payloads, we will see tangible evidence of drones’ utility for protecting the safety and lives of park and community guards, and increase poacher arrests and crime prevention.”
A project in Ol Pejeta Conservancy worked in conjunction with the US firm Airware to utilize surveillance drones from in in Central Kenya. Ol Pejeta’s Public Relations Manager Elodie Sampere explained, “To avoid the need for Ol Pejeta to employ full-time pilots and engineers, Airware has developed a simple digital mapping interface, meaning that even a technophobe with no pilot training should be able to control the drone from the ground station.”
She also noted that it would greatly enhance the park’s ability to accurately track the number of wildlife in the region. However, drones may not always be the best option. The project was blocked by the Kenyan government due to security concerns.
Other ideas may be better suited for the task. Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a Kickstarter pilot project based in San Francisco, is using recycled smart phones to create an anti-deforestation/anti-poaching detection system.
Teaming up with the Zoological Society of London, RFCx plans to use retired Android phones to send alerts in real-time to authorities when an illegal action is taking place.
Topher White, the head of RFCx, explained, “It’s clear that real-time awareness and intervention is a major missing piece in protecting the world’s last remaining rainforests. By using old smartphones and existing telecommunications infrastructure, we have built a system that we think could scale quickly enough to make a real impact.”
Just like the illegal drug trade, ivory smugglers are shifting tactics and routes. A large load of ivory was recently confiscated in Togo, a country with less than 65 elephants. Criminals are also turning to Mozambique’s airport in Maputo since Johannesburg is more activity patrolled.
Game Wardens in Sabi Sand, South Africa are turning to non-lethal pink dyes to protect rhinos. People who consume the rhino horn powder for traditional/religious purposes will become ill with nausea. The dye is also able to be detected by scanners in airports. However, criminals may not care about the consumers of rhino horns and could bleach the horns to continue selling them.
Public awareness and education for the end-markets in Asia will also be crucial. Social media campaigns and celebrity outreach could make an impact. WildAid’s video campaigns have shown signs of curbing the consumption of shark fins, with the demand for shark fins in Hong Kong dramatically decreasing by 70% in 2012. Movie stars Jackie Chan and Jiang Wen have taken part in an ad campaign, “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.” Public opinion in China and the rest of Asia is progressing with the younger generation.
The struggle against the cruel ivory trade will be an uphill battle, but the combination of technological innovation, social media, and better trained patrolling has the potential to help protect Africa’s endangered wildlife.