A black rhino, via Shankar S./Flickr
Despite increasingly high-tech anti-poaching efforts, the number of African rhinos killed for their horns has grown year over year. Yesterday, Kenya's national wildlife service announced a new plan to add microchips to all of its rhino's horns, in a bid to track and deter poachers. It's a smart plan, but is it the panacea some have billed it to be?
The new initiative announced the Kenya Wildlife Service involves implanting microchips in the horns of Kenya's black rhinos. The idea, according to a KWS release, is that "the deployment of specialised rhino horn tracking systems combined with forensic DNA technology will allow for 100 per cent traceability of every rhino horn and live animal within Kenya." The World Wildlife Fund provided 1,000 chips and five scanners, at a cost of around $15,000, which will be able to cover the roughly 500 to 600 rhinos remaining in Kenya's borders.
It's potentially a solution for a major problem in rhino horn smuggling and wildlife trafficking in general: It's really difficult for enforcement officials to know where a horn came from—and in some cases, that horn may even be legal.
The inability of enforcers to track where seized products came from is a hindrance to slowing poachers. Yes, part of the problem is that there are poachers everywhere that rhinos (and elephants, and so on) roam. But the massive busts that regularly come out of Asian ports aren't easily converted into useful intelligence on which poachers are working where, and where they're shipping their product, all necessary information for breaking up the organized smuggling rings that get products from Africa to Asia in the first place.
"With poachers getting more sophisticated in their approach it is vital that conservation efforts embrace the use of more sophisticated technology to counter the killing of wildlife," the KWS said in its statement.
Microchips could thus prove a huge value. DNA testing isn't cheap, and even if officials in Hong Kong decide to do so, rhinos don't have driver's licenses and dental records. Knowing where one set of rhino DNA came from means knowing the makeup and identifiers of rhino herds as a whole. While work has been done to construct such databases, microchips are cheaper and easier. Plus, widespread use of the chips could lead to easier scanning and identifying of smuggled horn.
"Investigators will be able to link any poached case to a recovered or confiscated horn and this forms crucial evidence in court contributing towards the prosecution's ability to push for sentencing of a suspected rhino criminal," said the KWS.
Kenya Wildlife Service Director William Kiprono (left) receives a scanner
and microchip from WWF Country Director Mohamed Awer, via KWS
To the latter point, imagine if a brick of cocaine were legal if it was an antique, or if it'd been collected during an approved hunt. That's the case with rhino horn, and without a more strictly-regulated international permit system in place, that inherent question of provenance makes it easier for indifferent officials in Asian markets to look the other way. The use of microchip identification in some rhinos is a step towards finding and proving that horn is illegal an easier task.
These are valid, heartening points, and ones touted by the WWF and KWS in their partnership. The step towards identifying and tracking horn as it moves around the world is a move advocates have trumpeted for ages. But there's still a long way to go.
Most immediately apparent is the simple fact that Kenya's rhino population is only a small part of the total African herd. As of February, the WWF pegged the herd of critically endangered black rhinos at 4,880, 40 percent of which live in South Africa. White rhinos are far more numerous, with around 20,000 left, the vast majority of which are also living in South Africa, which remains the world's rhino poaching hotspot.
A comprehensive effort to chip the rhino population would lead to far more complete data about how the rhino horn trade actually works, which is a requirement to finding and catching the major players who've turned the trade into a mirror of the sophisticated drug trade. Thankfully, the chips are relatively cheap, too. But even with plenty of funding, finding, catching, and chipping the tens of thousands of rhinos left in the wild is a massive undertaking. Without a more complete chipping initiative, the intelligence-gathering abilities of the microchip network is limited—and, again, we're still left without an international ID system for rhinos.
On top of that, the proverbial rhino in the room is how poachers will respond to the chips. Poachers are smart and ruthless, and now that they know Kenya is chipping horns, it's tough to tell how they'll react. Horns can be worth six figures, and they're not going to give up on those funds because of the potential of a horn being identified. At the very least, they may end up simply focusing their efforts elsewhere—which I suppose would at least be evidence that the chips act like a deterrent.
But we've seen that even drastic measures like dehorning rhino herds—which is time-consuming and difficult, but doesn't hurt the rhinos; their horns grow like fingernails—doesn't stop poachers from killing them, either to prevent wasting their time tracking them again or because they simply shoot every rhino they see. (This Safaritalk message board thread is an interesting read in this regard.) Plus, if chips can be implanted into horns, can they be removed? Regardless of the feasibility, the possibility is enough for poachers to keep killing in the hope that they'll be able to cash in.
The effort by WWF and KWS is laudable, and it will be interesting to see what kind of impact the program has. Simply put, killing the international trade means a method of tracking horn must be implemented. Microchips offer a lot of advantages from a data collection and cost standpoint, and they may end up being the right solution to the tracking problem.
But to truly end the killing will require the same fundamental shift that's always been needed: Rhino horn is an inert, medically useless substance, and it needs to be priced accordingly. The problem is that the elite in Vietnam, China, and elsewhere remain convinced that rhino horn has medicinal properties, and will pay huge sums for it. Until that demand bubble is popped—it's frustrating how hard this is to do, despite people literally throwing their money away—there simply isn't enough manpower, money, or drones to eradicate poaching.