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Rhino Horn Cams? If Only Stopping Poachers Were That Easy

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

The proposal is expensive and likely ineffective.

Image: Shankar s./Flickr

The newest anti-poaching technology will sound the warning whistle for rhino poaching. But it won't save rhinos in Africa.

A new nonprofit is sending people to knock out a 3,000-pound rhino, drill a hole in the soft keratin of its horn, and implant a tiny camera. The latest tech-solve for poaching, dubbed RAPID (Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device), was created by a team of conservationists in the UK working on anti-poaching efforts. When the rhino is shot by poachers for his valuable horn, the device, as well as an accompanying satellite transmitter and heart rate monitor, will tell operators to send out a helicopter to catch them before they make off with the horn.

"It's basically a burglar alarm for rhinos," Paul O'Donoghue, one of the creators, told BBC.

But there's one thing that the countless news writeups have neglected to mention: the alert sounds when the rhino's heart rate jumps. This could be triggered by a vehicle full of poachers arriving, meaning that there could be a small window of time for anti-poaching forces to arrive before the animal is killed. However, there's also a good chance that the rhino could die long before that.

Besides this, the procedure presents a myriad of logistical problems. Besides being expensive (the sedation alone costs about $1,000, according to a report from the Endangered Wildlife Trust), the cameras face forward—though rhinos are usually poached from the side or from behind, says Adam Welz, South Africa representative for WildAid and an expert on rhino conservation. A poacher may never even be glimpsed. What's more, rhinos horns are not useless appendages that can be defaced without drawbacks. Rhinos use them for defending territory and young or to assert dominance. The horns, made of the same stuff as our fingernails and hair, never stop growing from the base. In order to keep his horn in working shape, a rhino must continually rub it on trees and the ground. The camera could be easily damaged or simply pushed out.

The only lasting solution is public awareness, education, and enforcement programs

Repeatedly sedating a two-ton animal is also an issue. The devices are solar powered, but expected to run out every few years, meaning a rhino must be tranquilized yet again, a procedure that comes with a 5 percent chance that the animal will die. In other words, if the procedure is carried out on 100 rhinos, five of them may die before they even get their device.

What's more, simply finding a rhino poacher doesn't mean that the epidemic, which jumped by 21 percent to 1,215 rhinos killed in South Africa last year, will stop. There are about 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, where most of the poaching for horn happens. In one notable case, GoPro footage of a well-known game rancher illegally shooting white rhinos wasn't even enough to prosecute. Countless other rhino hunters have gotten off scot-free in recent years.

"There's a long distance between filming a poacher and arresting a poacher," Welz told Motherboard. "There's a long distance between arresting a poacher and convicting and jailing a poacher, and there's a very long distance between all this and taking down the transnational criminal syndicate of which the poacher is a small and easily replaceable part."

But Steve Piper, director of Protect, says that the rhino horn camera is just one tool in a host of strategies to fight poaching.

"We do need multiple solutions working together including awareness and education, but we also need to give anti-poaching forces suitable tools to try and cut things off at the point of supply," he told Motherboard in an email. "It doesn't matter how many guns, helicopters, dogs or training sessions they have if they don't know when and where poaching is taking place, and that's the key point that the Protect RAPID is attempting to address."

The trade in rhino horn has proved one of conservationists' stickiest problems for decades. The demand, concentrated mainly in Asian countries like Vietnam and China, is for traditional medicine and as a hangover cure. There is no evidence for the medical properties of rhino horn. (One study found it slightly reduced fever in children, but no more than aspirin.) Despite this, rhino horn, selling at prices up to $100,000 per kilogram, is more valuable on the black market than gold or cocaine.

The "rhino-cam" is not the only tech solution to poaching to pop up. About every six months, a new idea to save rhinos gets floated, praised, and then shot down. In 2010, it was dying the horn pink and poisoning it with toxic ectoparasiticides, which would cause people who ingest rhino horn to experience nausea, vomiting, and convulsions. But the poison didn't work. Poachers, it turns out, don't care if they poison people in faraway countries—and won't admit that the horn they're selling was poisoned because they'd risk losing the sale. Many couldn't even tell if the poison was present, because blood and other impurities obscured its color. According to a 2014 paper written on the practice, poisoning horns is nothing but an "ineffective deception."

As rhino numbers plummet, conservationists have become more and more desparate. Some game reserves have resorted to dehorning their rhinos completely, a process that also requires risky sedation to remove about 90 percent of the horn. But poachers, they found out, will still kill the animal for the remaining 10 percent. In the early 1990s, a group of rhinos in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe were all dehorned. In just over a year, the majority had been shot by poachers anyway. In 2011, six newly dehorned rhinos were poached from Zimbabwe's Save Valley Conservancy—one of them within 24 hours of being dehorned.

One company is even trying to flood the market with synthetic rhino horn manufactured in a San Francisco lab—a scheme that most conservationists argue will only increase consumer demand and make the problem worse. In the most extreme case of throwing-hands-in-the-air frustration, 100 rhinos were airlifted from South Africa to Botswana earlier this year.

The tech fixes, though many, have not yet helped to stem the tide of poaching. According to Welz, they aren't addressing the root of the problem.

"The reality is that saving rhinos comes down to persistence and lots of hard and sometimes boring work, and a lot of the tech is either a distraction or will likely make the problem worse," he said. "Everyone is looking for 'the' game-changer, whereas no single piece of tech will solve this very complicated problem."

So what's the real fix?

The cameras face forward—though rhinos are usually poached from the side or from behind

The only lasting solution is public awareness, education, and enforcement programs to prevent people from wanting horn in the first place. Some, like a massive public information campaign that dropped rhino horn demand in Vietnam by 33 percent, have already been successful. Ending the demand, said Welz, will end the supply.

"It's the profits from the black market retail sale of rhino horn that finance the whole poaching and trafficking edifice," he said. "The ultimate solution to rhino poaching is to persuade people not to buy horn."

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the RAPID alert only sounds when a rhino's heart rate jumps or stops, after it has died. It has been edited to show that there is a window of time for anti-poaching rangers to arrive; the animal is not necessarily dead. This post has also been updated to clarify that the high cost comes partly from the cost of sedation, and to include a comment from Protect's Steve Piper.