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Nepal goes high-tech in its fight against rhino poachers

  • Since 2011, Nepal has had four 365-day stretches with no rhino poaching and has seen its rhino population increase by 21 percent.
  • Experts say Nepal’s success is largely down to unity of purpose from officials, conservation groups and communities, but technology plays a key role too.
  • Anti-poaching patrols have experimented with a wide variety of high-tech tools including GPS collars and drones.

In the wrong hands, technology can be a menace to animals. Poachers around the world use night vision goggles, assault rifles and even helicopters. The technological gap between those involved in the capture and trade of wildlife and those who enforce the law is a major issue in anti-poaching efforts.

In an attempt to close this gap, conservationists around the world are adding high-tech tools to their anti-poaching arsenals, sometimes with great success.

Nepal is a case in point. Despite the sad death of a male greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) in September, this small Himalayan country is still one of the most successful in the world at protecting rhinos. Prior to September, more than two years had passed without a documented rhino killing by poachers. Between 2011 and 2014, Nepal twice achieved 365 consecutive days without poaching, and the country is aiming for zero poaching in the future. Successful anti-poaching efforts have translated into a 21 percent increase in Nepal’s rhino population since 2011, according to government figures. Today, 645 greater one-horned rhinos are grazing in the Terai Arc Landscape.

One of the 645 greater one-horned rhinos counted in Nepal during a 2015 population survey. Photo by Sumanth Kudavai/Felis Creations/WWF.

Experts credit Nepal’s success to a cocktail of factors, chief among them unity of purpose among government officials, domestic and international conservation groups and local residents. But willingness to embrace innovation and technology has helped to bolster these efforts and keep conservationists from losing ground to poachers.

The more you know…

When it comes to protecting an endangered species, it is essential to know as much as possible about the habits of the surviving population. “Technology is very important to find out real-time information about when and where the rhinos are grazing or living, where they go, what they do during the night-time or in different seasons,” Maheshwar Dhakal, Deputy Director General of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation at Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, told Mongabay.

Most of Nepal’s rhinos live close to the Indian border, making transboundary cooperation a priority. Image courtesy of Christopher cage/Wikimedia Commons.

Dhakal says information from satellite-GPS collars plays an important role in decisions about where to establish new protected areas and where to deploy anti-poaching patrols. Since 2014, four rhinos have been collared in Khata biological corridor, an area that connects Bardiya National Park in Nepal and Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in India.

“We invested a large amount of money to restore forest connectivity in the Khata corridor, and thanks to these radio collars we found out that rhinos are visiting it on a daily basis. Knowing this, some members of the local communities started ecotourism activities” said Dhakal.

Ramesh Thapa, Chief Warden of Bardia National Park, believes this technology can not only provide useful data to conservation science, but also strengthen transboundary efforts to protect rhinos. “The information will also provide evidence of corridor use by endangered wildlife to advocate for strategic and sustainable approaches to any infrastructure development planned inside Khata Corridor,” he said in a press statement. This kind of information is especially important given that conservationists working in the Khata Corridor must prove their case to the governments of both India and Nepal.

A rhino, wearing a collar, is released in Nepal. Photo by Samir Jung Thapa/WWF Nepal.

“Transboundary cooperation is of immense importance for saving a flagship species such as rhinos,” explains Rajan Kotru, program manager of the Transboundary Landscapes program at the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. “[I]f one country in border areas is conserving or trying to conserve Rhinos, it cannot do so successfully unless cooperation with neighboring resource managers or communities is maintained.”  Mapping rhino hotspots and developing ways to share this data is crucial for cooperation, Kotru adds.

Real-time monitoring can also help with another problem, Dhakal says: conflict between humans and rhinos. In Nepal, around two people are killed by a rhino every month, so keeping track of where rhinos are ranging can also help save human lives.

Working smarter

Another high-tech aid used by wildlife rangers in Nepal is the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), a conservation tool currently used in over 120 protected areas around the world. SMART is a free toolkit that combines an open-source software system with training on how to collect and manage data (all available in local languages). It includes a desktop application and is compatible with many GPS units and data collection devices.

Following the SMART protocol, rangers collect information about the threats to biodiversity they identify, such as the number of snares, poached carcass or timber stumps they encounter. They also record their actions – for instance how many snares they removed, how many weapons they confiscated, and how many warnings issued – and keep track of encounters with wildlife, such as sighting of animals or their droppings.

Data is collected either on paper forms with a GPS or through handheld GPS-enabled mobile devices. Then, this information flows into a computer where the SMART software and database are installed, allowing team leaders to evaluate patrol results and assess threat levels.

Smart Patrolling in Nepal’s Bardia National Park. Photo by Nabin Barai/WWF Nepal.

SMART technology is not limited to rhino conservation, but in Nepal it is widely adopted to protect this species. In late 2014, the  Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and other members of the SMART partnership held a five-day workshop to train protected area management staff from the Department of Nepal Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the Nepalese Army and the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

“After introduction of SMART, the number of patrols carried out by parks’ protection units have increased. With extensive training for the patrol units, it is easier for them to record information related to wildlife monitoring and any suspicious activity,” Gitanjali Bhattacharya, ZSL’s conservation program manager for South and Central Asia, told Mongabay in an email. “Increased patrols have also helped to curb poaching while also reducing human movements and disturbances in key tiger and rhino habitats,” she added. “SMART has also made a significant impact, allowing for patrols to be organised more efficiently, aided by technologies including GPS and Android-based data collection to enable SMART implementation.”

Today this technology is being implemented in Chitwan, Banke and Bardia National Parks and Parsa and Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserves. In Parsa, data is collected through paper-based SMART, while patrols in other locations are using a real-time SMART monitoring app developed by the Nepali Army with the support of WWF Nepal.

Madhav Khadka, WWF Nepal’s manager for wildlife trade monitoring, believes SMART technology was key to achieving zero poaching of rhinos in the past, and in the near future real-time monitoring will play a pivotal role in curbing illegal poaching. “We say we have the boots on the ground and the eyes on the screen,” he told Mongabay.

This is not to say things always run perfectly smoothly. “The main problem is we don’t have internet access in the jungle and every technology needs internet: this is one of the drawbacks of using technology in the forest,” Khadka said. “But thanks to this app, the commander of the unit can deploy more troops in case there are poachers in the area. And in many parts of Nepal the forest and the grassland are very thick, but using this technology is easy to locate where the patrols are.”

Trial and error

Rangers in Nepal have experimented with drones, but their utility is still limited. Photo courtesy of Madhav Khadka/WWF Nepal.

Khadka believes cutting-edge technologies are among the factors that allowed Nepal to achieve its success, and WWF Nepal has tested many of them. In 2012, it trained park rangers and army personnel in operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remote-controlled drones equipped with cameras and GPS that can capture images and videos from hard-to-reach areas. This project shows promise, Khadka says, but they have found the drones available to them — GPS-enabled FPV Raptor model planes that can fly a pre-programmed route of about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) for up to 50 minutes — are too limited to be practical in large reserves.

“We are still using UAVs, but not regularly because we are looking for more robust types that can fly for longer times and cover greater areas, and struggling to find them,” said Khadka.

Another field test recently carried out by WWF Nepal involved the use of a state-of-the-art technology: Google Glass, high-tech glasses that display information on their lenses and allows the wearer to communicate with the Internet by talking.

“It’s part of my job to try, test and use the best science and tools available to help my country remain a refuge for rhinos, tigers, elephants and so many other facets of nature,” said Sabita Malla, Senior Research Officer at WWF Nepal, in a press statement. In 2014, Malla and her team used Google Glass to monitor rhinos in Chitwan National Park, and worked with a developer to create Field Notes, custom-built software that allows biologists to record field data to support Nepal’s ID-based rhino monitoring program.

“A task once requiring pen, paper and a fine sense of balance when perched on elephants is now a hands-free experience. Field Notes helped me record observations in the field, GPS locations, and photos and videos like rhinos in their habitat,” she said. These field tests show promise, Malla said, but WWF Nepal has not yet used the glasses in regular patrols.

Anti-poaching dog Murray being trained in Chitwan National Park. Photo by Akash Shrestha/WWF Nepal.

The jury is also still out on a lower-tech innovation currently being tried out in Chitwan National Park: sniffer dogs trained to track rhino horns. “Since we established this [project] we have been very lucky because there hasn’t been any incident for using these dogs. And hopefully we will never have not to use them,” Khadka said.

Nepalis have also found uses for many other technologies to stop wildlife crime, from night vision to thermal imaging cameras and CCTV. Maheshwar Dhakal hopes to see even more new technologies being embraced in his country, but stresses that they should be used holistically in the whole country rather than simply being piloted or tested in individual parks.

All things considered, Nepal is a world-leading example in the global fight against wildlife poaching. Still, Dhakal warns, technology alone is not enough. ZSL’s Gitanjali Bhattacharya agrees. “The success of anti-poaching efforts in Nepal is testament to the coordinated effort of Nepali Government, conservation organizations and local community members,” she said. “Use of technology has also helped in further strengthening strong anti-poaching operations. However, it is important to note that technology is a support system rather than perfect solution for anti-poaching. Fighting poaching effectively therefore requires a coordinated effort where technology plays a vital role.”