The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why high-tech anti-poaching methods don’t always live up to the hype

OL PEJETA CONSERVANCY, Kenya – Najin, a northern white rhino female, was born in captivity in 1989. With just five northern white rhinos left on earth – three of them here in Kenya – conservationists are searching for a scientific breakthrough that could save a population that is already effectively extinct. (Nichole Sobecki for The Washington Post)

Poaching is one of the biggest threats to endangered rhinos, which are often killed for their valuable horns. Because the problem has become so serious, conservationists are constantly on the lookout for new and better methods to cut down on the illegal horn trade — and the use of sophisticated technology is starting to take the lead in the anti-poaching battle.

In recent years, innovators have introduced a handful of high-tech gadgets and clever procedures intended to either deter poachers on the ground or undermine the market for expensive rhino horn, which is sold at high prices in places like China and Vietnam for use in traditional medicines. But despite their flash, some of these technologies may not quite live up to their hype, and conservationists caution that these fancy fixes are not cures, in and of themselves, to the poaching problem.

Take the newest innovation, which made headlines in the last few weeks: a handy new gadget, which attracted the attention of both conservationists and tech enthusiasts while offering new hope for dwindling rhino populations in Africa.

The Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device (RAPID) is a system designed to deter rhino poachers with several high-tech features. Developed by British conservation group Protect, the system includes heart-rate monitors embedded in the rhino’s skin, a camera implant in the rhino’s horn and a GPS collar. If a rhino’s heart rate drastically rises or falls, the system will alert operators who can remotely activate the camera in the rhino’s horn to see what’s going on. If it looks like a poaching attempt, the GPS collar tells authorities where to go.

That’s the idea, anyway. The device is still being tested in South Africa — and some experts are dubious about how helpful it will actually be. “The video camera is likely to last only hours, maybe days or at best weeks on a rhino before being smashed, obscured with dirt, or otherwise rendered useless – rhinos are not kind to gadgets,” says Raoul du Toit, director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust in Zimbabwe and Africa Program Coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation, in an email to the Post. Moreover, he adds, even if the device was able to alert authorities to a potential poaching incident, it’s unlikely that on-the-ground forces would be able to respond as quickly as the gadget’s developers seem to think they would.

“Like many previous technological claims in the rhino conservation battle, the claims made about the effectiveness of this device will be heard with considerable skepticism by jaded conservationists,” du Toit adds. And, in fact, many of these previous technologies have been similar in that they sounded sharp but ultimately didn’t quite deliver.

Drones are one example, according to du Toit. The idea of using camera-equipped drones to police rhino herds has received considerable attention in the media, but hasn’t delivered much in the way of practical results, according to experts. “We are yet to see a robust, affordable model that could become part of the basic equipment for rhino protection,” du Toit writes in his email. And Richard Emslie, a scientific officer in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African rhino specialist group, agrees.

“If you speak to most rhino conservationists [about drones], you’ll probably hear a groan,” Emslie says. That’s not to say drones don’t have their promise. On the positive side, they could help deter poachers simply by being visible flying around. But they otherwise come with a lot of restrictions. Small, less powerful drones are most affordable for conservation groups, but they often can only fly a few miles at a time and aren’t practical for larger game reserves, which can cover hundreds of miles.

And, Emslie adds, there are often “tradeoffs with drones in terms of the quality and resolution of the camera feed and the weight of the plane,” meaning drones with heavier, more sophisticated camera equipment will probably not be able to travel as far as lighter, but less sensitive, aircraft. There’s also the simple fact that drones require on-the-ground teams of people to monitor footage in real time — and extra staff members are expensive to employ.

Even more creative anti-poaching methods have been tested in the past, such as poisoning rhino horns — while they’re still attached to the rhinos — and marking them with a special dye to ward off poachers, a technique that du Toit and Emslie both oppose. The idea is to inject rhinos’ horns with a poison that would sicken anyone who later ingested it (injecting this poison into just the horn is safe for the animals, proponents maintain). Afterwards, marking the horn with a bright stripe would warn poachers that the horn was tainted, deterring them from killing the rhino.

Putting aside all ethical concerns about poisoning horns that could later be consumed by humans, Emslie points out a number of logistical flaws with this idea. First, some research has indicated that the poison doesn’t really do a good job of diffusing throughout the horn, so it’s actually not very effective. And furthermore, poachers may simply not care if the horn is poisoned, as long as they aren’t the ones eating it, and it’s only too easy to cut out the dyed parts of a horn and sell the rest. Nonetheless, the tactic is still employed in some places, in particular by an organization called the Rhino Rescue Project, which maintains that the method has had some success at curbing poaching.

Other controversial anti-poaching efforts have included dehorning rhinos to make them less desirable and manufacturing synthetic rhino horn to sell on the market in an effort to reduce demand for the real thing. Selling synthetic horn, in particular, has garnered backlash because of its potential to clash with campaigns aimed at curbing consumers’ demand to buy rhino horn in the first place.

On the other hand, other forms of advanced technology show a lot of promise, Emslie says, particularly when it comes to tracking rhino horns on the market and figuring out where they came from. For instance, a South African DNA database called RhoDIS collects samples from live animals, which can later be matched with DNA from confiscated horns if the rhino is poached, helping authorities figure out where exactly an illegal horn came from and who might have been responsible for it.

But the most important thing to remember, according to Emslie, is “to not forget about the basics,” which include having skilled teams of anti-poaching rangers on the ground and spreading community initiatives and education campaigns to try and stop poaching at its roots.

Many emerging high-tech conservation efforts have both pros and cons, but they should be thought of as ways to complement existing anti-poaching tactics, rather than replace them, Emslie says. And since budgets tend to be tight for conservation organizations, he adds that it’s also important to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each new technological development and only “spend the money where it looks likely to give the greatest returns.”

“There are no technical or strategic quick fixes to save rhinos from poaching,” du Toit confirms in his email to the Post. He agrees with Emslie that there’s “no alternative to conventional law-enforcement, coupled with efforts to reduce horn demand,” and adds that these efforts will be most effective when supported by strong governmental commitment.

And finally, he adds, it’s important to remember that rhino poaching is just one aspect of the much broader problem of wildlife trafficking in general, which threatens many other species including lions, tigers and pangolins. “Whatever solution we think we need to implement for rhinos, we need to first consider what it means for the broader effort in tackling traffic in such commodities,” he says.