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How can conservationists match high-tech design with on-the-ground realities?

  • Conservationists and wildlife managers are frustrated with the hype around unproven emerging technologies
  • Designing and implementing technology to complement local conditions and needs is often overlooked
  • Close work between developers and resource managers can produce technologies that work with existing protection strategies

Wildlife poaching has grown in recent years to unprecedented levels and now threatens the existence of several iconic and ecological valuable species in Africa. Of these, the endangered white and black rhinos are perhaps under the greatest threat. Wildlife rangers charged with protecting these animals are typically outgunned by poaching gangs that are often associated with or directly linked to terrorist groups.

Conservationists have adjusted their anti-poaching strategies, looking for new ways to combat poaching by harnessing new and emerging technologies. Independent tech developers have also stepped in to offer their services. As recently reported by the Washington Post, these efforts have had mixed results, and a number of tech-driven strategies are designed by groups without the knowledge and awareness of on-the-ground conditions to make a compatible device.

A white rhino grazes in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Rhino horn from African countries is currently valued at USD $100,000/kg, more than it’s weight in gold. Photo by Sue Palminteri

An example of this trend is the recently publicized tracking system with a camera made to fit inside a rhino horn. The device, called the Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device (RAPID) and developed by the UK-based nonprofit Protect, comprises a heart-rate monitor embedded in the rhino’s skin, a camera implant in the rhino’s horn, and a GPS-enabled collar. If a rhino’s heart rate rises or falls abnormally quickly, the system will alert operators who can remotely activate the camera in the rhino’s horn to see what’s going on around it, and the GPS collar can transmit location information to responding authorities. A swift response by law enforcement could then respond to the alert in a timely manner, a challenge for typically small teams of rangers patrolling large protected areas.

The device is still being tested in South Africa, but media reports have heralded the device as “the missing link in the fight against poachers”.

According to animal tagging and rhino experts, however, the device is likely to fail for several reasons, the most obvious being that it doesn’t appear durable enough to last as a rhino wearable device. “Looking at the video, the lens will surely be scratched or covered with dirt, making the footage unlikely to have any value”, said Henrik Rasmussen, who runs Savannah Tracking Ltd. which develops and produces tracking collars for research, and preventing poaching and human wildlife conflict. “Battery life for the camera unit is also a concern for me.” However, he adds “the implanted heart rate monitor is a good concept and something that could help create an effective rhino alarm implant.”

In an email interview with the Washington Post, Raoul du Toit of the Lowveld Rhino Trust in Zimbabwe echoed these concerns.

“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.” Du Toit goes on to add that “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.”

Aside from the technological and logistical problems associated with putting a live-streaming camera on a wild animal, the key takeaway from Du Toit’s comments is that 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 quickly enough.

A camera is drilled into the front of the horn to send live video of what the rhino sees. Photo by Protect

Integrating Technology within Existing Protection Strategies

With some anti-poaching technologies, there is a disparity between how a piece of technology is designed to work and how it fits in with a reserve’s existing protection operations. Using the RAPID system, an alert cannot be sent until the rhino is under distress and has likely already been poached. Once the rhino has been killed, a highly skilled team will hack off the horns and be gone in minutes while wildlife rangers struggle to get to the scene of the crime.

In a 2015 paper on biologging devices, developers Paul O’Donoghue and Christian Rutz state that anti-poaching units “often have helicopters at their disposal,” which would be needed for rangers to respond sufficiently rapidly to catch poachers in or just after the act. As explained in the paper, once a park manager knows a rhino has been shot, the ensuing search effort would make it much harder for any poachers to exit the area on marked roads.

However, the vast majority of parks and reserves are severely lacking in this high-priced equipment, and with rhino horn approaching gold and cocaine in monetary value, individuals in many impoverished communities will still take the risk. As National Geographic’s Oliver Payne points out in a post on drones and anti-poaching: “It’s not uncommon for ranger forces to lack vehicles, weapons, communications equipment, and even basic supplies like water bottles and boots. In some countries, rangers go months without being paid. Most important, rangers often don’t get essential basic training.”

Any investment in technological solutions needs to consider how well a new piece of equipment will fit into existing operations and help accomplish the mission. Will the ranger or community team that will be using a piece of technology know how to operate it? Will the device hold up to field conditions? Are rangers capable of getting to a site if an alert is triggered?

Rangers on foot patrol in the Maasai Mara Conservancy, Kenya. Photo by Nathan Hahn

On the positive side, there are plenty of existing and developing systems that can work with and enhance existing ranger capacity. Some examples include devices that can detect intruders as they cross reserve borders along known poaching trails, or GPS-enabled cameras and software that help ranger teams plan their patrols strategically; these early warnings are meant to increase the response time buffer and patrolling effectiveness, respectively, of over-worked wildlife rangers. New systems should also complement community conservation programs that work to shift attitudes towards wildlife and improve relations between communities and reserves. These can create strong informant networks to track gang activity and improve relations between local people and protected areas. This strategy, combined with deployment of military resources in protected areas, has worked wonders in Nepal, where poaching numbers for rhinos and tigers dropped to zero across the country in 2011 and have remained extremely low ever since.

To ensure that the expectations of new technological solutions are met, developers must understand and take into consideration the resources and structures already in place. There is a clear need for new technologies in wildlife and forest conservation; improving communication between the engineers and the users can help make sure the devices being created will effectively solve a resource manager’s problems.