There are five species of rhinoceroses, located in both Africa and Asia, and are included in the Big 5 group of animals that draw tourists to safaris. However, thanks to trophy hunting and the illegal ivory trade, Africa’s Big 5 are being killed at alarming rates.
Rhinos, for example, are targeted every day by poachers who kill them only for their horns, which are then sold on the black market. According to the organization Save the Rhino, rhinos have been killed at such high rates that “all five remaining rhino species are [now] listed on the IUCN Redlist of threatened species, with three out of five species classified as critically endangered.”
UK-based organization Protect has a new, innovative plan to help catch poachers and protect rhinos. The project was spearheaded by Paul O’Donoghue, who has worked with black rhinos for over 15 years, and was backed by Humane Society International UK.
Protect’s new program, RAPID (Real-time Anti Poaching Intelligence Device), uses webcam technology paired with a GPS system and heart-rate monitors to track poachers from a rhino’s point of view. Heart-rate monitors are placed under the rhino’s skin, and the GPS devices are worn on a collar around the rhino’s neck. A simple, painless procedure is used to mount the webcams into the rhino’s front horn. A drill makes a hole, where the camera is then inserted. Since rhino horns are made out of keratin, the same material found in human hair and fingernails, the procedure is painless.
The RAPID system initiates itself when the rhino’s heart rate increases. If a rhino is spooked, for example, or shot at, the heart-rate monitor sends a signal back to a control centre and the camera switches on. This helps speed up the reaction time of rangers, and allows them to see what is happening around the rhino. Since the rhino’s location is pinned by GPS, rangers can often be on the scene in minutes via helicopter.
The fast reaction time increases the chances of poachers being caught red-handed at the scene. If the poachers notice a camera in the rhino’s horn and flee, rangers can still use the video images to track them down and make arrests. The worst case scenario would see poachers killing the rhino and taking its horn(s) before rangers arrived on-scene, but again, the video images would help aid in their arrest.
The RAPID program has been in a trial phase since 2011, and are only beginning to be tested in the field this year. The first trials will be carried out in South Africa, where over 1,000 rhinos were illegally killed in 2014. An official launch of RAPID is planned for 2016. Protect also has plans to expand their conservation efforts and launch new programs, with similar devices, to help curb poaching against elephants and tigers.