Innovations in the fight against poaching

Fynn van Westen

The use of animal resources is as natural for humans as the use of tools or plants. Over thousands of years we gained resources from animals and lived in a symbiotic relationship. But what happens with an ever growing population and the resulting demand for resources? We drive this relationship to a point that can be described as unnatural and abusive. Over the decades our demand and ignorance have driven hundreds of species to the edge of extinction or we have even lost them forever. Luckily we have started to realize this problem and are trying to protect these species. These efforts are still very young and the demand for resources for endangered species is still elevated. Additionally, where there is a market, there is someone who will engage. Poached goods, on the mainly Asian medicine and ornament markets, give poachers a selling point and poaching has become one of the driving factors for extinction of endangered species.  

When we think about poaching elephants, rhinos, and tigers come to mind. But poaching is not limited to these magnificent animals. A not so fun fact is that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) asserts that the lesser known pangolin is believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal. Their scales, which in Chinese medicine are believed to have healing powers, make them a target for poaching and trafficking. This example shows how much of the problem is still unknown by the public. 

Poaching is a very complex topic with various aspects to consider. Often, socio-economic factors and cultural influences are determining factors regarding the demand for poaching products and the willingness to poach. For example, a single horn can earn a poacher an estimated 60.000$ per Kilo, the equivalent of 5 Years of income in Africa, in just one day. The difficult economic and social situation in some of these countries is a significant motivation for poachers.

These are complicated and difficult factors, which need time to be changed. So what do we do in the meantime? 

Innovative approaches to fight and prevent poachers

A method that went viral on social media, due to a digitally altered image a couple of years ago, is the poisoning and dyeing of Rhino horns. In an effort to reduce the attractiveness of Rhino horns to poachers, organisations and national parks started to treat the horns with poison. Since these horns are often consumed as medicine or a sign of wealth, poisoned horns are not valuable, thereby reducing demand. Also the dye can be detected by airport scanners to better identify trafficking attempts. According to the Rhino Rescue Project, the treatment is safe for the animals and their offspring, because they use animal-friendly resources for the poison. They also claim that less than 2% of the treated animals were lost to poaching or other circumstances.

Critics argue that this approach is not as effective as claimed, since the horn regrows about every 4 years and then needs to be treated again. During the treatment, a hole gets drilled in the rhino’s horn to infuse the mixture. Critics claim that the poison doesn’t spread through the horn, but rather remains in the hole where it can easily be removed by poachers. Further, they claim that it is just not feasible to treat all Rhinos, and therefore poachers will be driven to areas with untreated animals or that poachers continue poaching regardless of the treatment. They also fear that poisoned horns might drive up the prices for “pure” horns and generally increase the demand. Referring to a study that examined the method and its effects, they conclude that the method is not efficient enough to be financially viable.

A more drastic approach is the virtual fortress. It is a pilot program that has been tested at a single anonymous park with amazing results. The park is under constant surveillance. They monitor everything and apply modern data analysis techniques to track all suspicious movement in the park. In collaboration with the technology industry, the park set up multiple sensors, tracking devices, communication equipment, and much more. Instead of tracking the animals, they track the people and try to recognise and predict fencing breeches and incursions. This approach spares the animals a lot of stress and risk, and allows rangers to be more preventive instead of just reacting when it’s too late. The gates of the parks are equipped with metal detectors, cameras with facial recognition, sniffing dogs, and GPS trackers installed in each entering vehicle. Acoustic fibre and metallic sensors on the fences provide an alarm system in case of a breach. All this data gets analysed and, in case of an emergency, armed rangers can be dropped off on location by helicopter in about seven minutes.

It sounds like a science fiction novel, but the results of the experimental approach are promising. The response time was cut from 30 to 7 minutes and poaching decreased by 96%. In the year after the deployment of the virtual fortress, no rhino was slaughtered in the park. On top of that, the park pursues a wholesome approach by investing in social development and tourism of the park, to give people opportunities for work and education to reduce their desire to become poachers. This makes it not just a method to fight poaching, but also to change the game for good.

The huge downside of this approach is obvious: the cost. All of this technology needs to be funded and only protects a specific area. Poachers are driven to less protected parks which are still at risk. The program is working to prove the concept and convince philanthropists and the private sector to invest in the expansion for other parks and reserves.

There are good and creative ways to fight poachers, but as long as there is a demand for poaching, poachers will find a way to counter the efforts made. This results in a constant battle between the parties and a never-ending cycle of effective methods.

The only way to solve poaching for good, is to get to the root of the problem. This means helping countries in which poaching is a specific issue to develop and provide other opportunities for work and income. It also entails shifting the views of the demanding cultures. The first step is raising awareness, so people start to think about the issue regularly. For example, a change of perspective, from seeing the horns as a status symbol to viewing the protection and preservation of the species as a status symbol, could benefit both sides.

Sources: International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), LatinAmerican Post, Popular Mechanics, Rhino Rescue Project, Save the Rhino