3D printers, drones, and surveillance cameras are the latest high-tech weapons in the war against rhino and elephant poaching. But some experts say these gadgets may be more science fiction than substance.
With poaching an ever-increasing threat to rhinos and elephants, conservationists and entrepreneurs are always on the lookout for the next technology that will give them the upper hand.
And while new innovations attract media attention and inspire hope for endangered species, wildlife experts warn that they’ll need more practical methods to save threatened animals.
The latest technology to make headlines with the promise of bringing poachers to justice was the Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device (RAPID), a system that used cameras, GPS trackers,and heart monitors embedded in rhinos to collect evidence on poachers.
The theory is thus: if an animal is killed, it posthumously summons rangers to avenge its death. But experts say it’s unlikely to help, with the video camera likely to run out of batteries, be damaged, or smothered in dirt long before it can be put to use.
“Rhinos are not kind to gadgets,” says Raoul du Toit, director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust in Zimbabwe in an interview with the Washington Post. Toit adds than even if the system were able to call for rangers, it’s unlikely they could respond fast enough to capture poachers.
Drones have also promised to serve as protective guardians of rhinos and other endangered animals, watching them from above and notifying law enforcement of poachers in the area.
“If you speak to most rhino conservationists [about drones], you’ll probably hear a groan,” Richard Emslie, a scientific officer in the International Union for Conservation of Nature told the Post.
Emslie says that drones are often too expensive for conservation groups, and affordable models can only fly a few miles at a time, which is impractical for gigantic game reserves. They also require a staff on the ground to monitor video feeds, adding to the already prohibitive cost.
Then there’s the controversial method of dyeing or even poisoning live rhino’s horns to deter poachers. But research shows poison is ineffective, as it doesn’t diffuse well through the horn.
Poachers also care little if the horn is poisoned, as they’re only selling the product, not consuming it. And criminals can easily deal with dyed horns by cutting out the colored parts and trafficking the rest of it.
Another proposed method aims to use 3D printers to create fake rhino horns that would be indistinguishable from the real thing. Conservationists aim to flood the market with their cheap and artificial product, pricing out poachers.
But the idea has been criticized as contributing to the demand for rhino horns, effectively making the problem worse.
Where Does That Leave Us?
That’s not to say conservationists have ruled out all new technology to deter poaching.
Most conservationists believe the practice of DNA analysis shows promise. In specially-purposed laboratories, scientists can collect samples from live animals then match the DNA with rhino horns or elephant tusks that are confiscated.
This allows them to better determine where an animal came from and better zero in on the criminal poaching and smuggling networks.
But wildlife experts say the best solutions may be low-tech and less flashy. That includes fielding team of rangers to patrol land where rhinos and elephants reside, and supporting programs that educate local communities about the importance of halting poaching.
There’s also a need for increased governmental involvement to protect animals and crack down on international criminal networks.
A single piece of technology isn’t likely to be the magic bullet that cures the poaching epidemic, but various law enforcement methods that work in cooperation can make meaningful progress.
According to wildlife experts, new high-tech tools can certainly help out, but ultimately the fate of endangered species will rely on humans doing most of the work.