Could there soon be an ‘eye in the sky’ to work against poachers?

It’s highly possible that technology could potentially become a secure line of defense against the poaching crisis occurring in Africa, replacing sniffer dogs and GPS tagged rangers currently in force protecting the targeted animals.

A Kenyan reserve specializing in protecting black and white rhinos teamed up with Airware, the San Francisco based tech company, with the intent on creating unmanned drones designed to fly above the 90,000 acres of protected land to keep watch for illegal poaching activity. Developed astonishingly quickly in light of the recent revelation on just how badly he effect of poaching is spreading, the Kenyan Wildlife service gave the combined organisations the blessing to run a 10-day trial in July, 2014, and the results were a pleasing success, even when at one point during the testing a loss of communication occurred with the aircraft (following which, the drone returned back to its launch site with no hassle at all).

Less than a meter in wing length, and able to fly up to 500 feet, the drones are equipped with both a high definition camera and thermal imaging, and fly silently to avoid disturbing both the wildlife and the tourists which support the economy in this area of Africa.

While the trial was deemed a success, it has been admitted that more work needs to be done. The control and the function of the drones works well, but money and research is being put into developing the frame of the aircraft (so it is able to withstand the changing conditions of the African climate), as well as battery life. Currently the smaller drones have a battery life of 30-90 minutes; not long enough for the larger game reserves.

A problem though would be that larger surveillance drones, with longer ranges, are too expensive for most game researches (costing upwards of $250,000 per unit), but the opinions of those involved are that this is a good step forward. A cyber eye in the sky would be a good line of defense against the poaching threat.

UN surveillance drone

A long range surveillance drone (BBC images).

There are some theories that they may also be designed to include an alarm system, despite reservations on the matter; enabling them to, if they locate a potenial poacher, automatically sound an alarm to both alert the authorities and any tourists within the vicinity, and to scare wildlife out of harms range.

Despite the opinion of some being that an alarm would damage the tourist industry and potentially harm the animals, it is the opinion of other’s that both rhinos and elephants are better ‘scared than dead’… and as 1,000 rangers have been killed by poachers in the last 10 years, the early warning system could potentially help reduce human causalities as well.

(To read the full story and extra information on this development, see the BBC news article.)

Is this the right step forward?

In my opinion? Yes. Technology is one of the main causes of the rise in the illegal poaching industry, and in fact the illegal animal trafficking operations, in the last decade. Especially with advances such as the internet, oversea communications and the arrangements of illegal shippings is a lot easier to organise now than it was before the ban on African ivory in the 1970s. But thanks to modern advancements, such as those detailed here and others besides, I think that technology could be the most likely option available for saving what Rhinos and Elephants there are left. If the money and the time and the resources can continue to be thrown into working in areas such as technology development, there is potentially a good chance that the war on blood ivory will turn out less bloody for all involved.

After all, not only do the drones, acoustic traps and mobile technology developments offer security for the elephants and rhinos, but they also offer protection for other species in Africa and targeted areas too, and are being put into use elsewhere on the globe (a university in Florida is currently using drone technology to monitor alligator populations, for instance). Humans are protected too, as I’ve said above… to have more robotic eyes watching the grounds of Africa would reduce the number of humans caught in the crossfire.

Of course, I don’t think it’s the complete answer. Technology is one step on the ladder. In my opinion, in order for anything to actually change, awareness in all countries has to be raised (I may look into this actually, by interviewing my flatmates and seeing how much they, as scientists, know about the problem in Africa right now). There are troubles, of course; the main demand for ivory is now coming from China, where it is considered to be a cultural thing and is it is always hard to get rid of the need for something that has such a history in a countries culture. I believe that eventually it will be possible though… after all. It’s good to be optimistic. And while I have had the chance to work with Asian Elephants, I would love to work with African Elephants and have them unthreatened enough to feel safe while doing so (is that a selfish reason? Perhaps).

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Extremely Rare White Rhino Dies

The Northern White Rhino ‘Suni’ was found dead on the 17th October 2014 in his enclosure in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, aged 34 years. Suni had not fathered any offspring, and his death leaves only six of his species left on the planet. Of which, only one is a male. The death of such a beacon of hope does not spell for a good future of his subspecies.

The youngest male rhino, Suni at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on Nov. 19, 2010.

[ link to the full story ]

It’s hard to suggest what could be done to help creatures like this rhino. This subspecies has little hope for the future at all, which is a sad thing but the truth is sometimes never pretty. Additionally, the fact that this rhino died at a peak adult age, of apparently natural reasons, does not suggest the a life in captivity suits creatures like this.

There is always going to be a problem of having animals like rhinos and elephants in captivity, which is a problem that has to be addressed if the populations ever get so low. For starters… I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but elephants and rhinos are big creatures. I’ve stood next to an Asian elephant, and next to a fully grown female I believe that the distance from the top of her forehead to the base of her trunk was almost as tall as my entire height (and I’m an averaged sized 20 year old female). They are huge. Graceful, but huge, and from what I learned in Thailand, they are hard to care for. The amount of food they go through daily takes a lot of time and money to grow and prepare… and so it may not be something that a zoo, or any captive breeding programs are really capable of doing. Additionally their ranges are staggering, and their social behaviour is complex enough to sometimes compel large herds of the creatures over hundreds of kilometers for a reason that only they seem to know.

I don’t think that elephants and rhinos would ever be able to do well in captivity, in zoos or even in the National Elephant Park, which is the closest thing Elephants can get in Thailand to living back in the wild after a life of a domesticated creature. It’s a sad opinion to have, and upsetting as well… and I can only hope that things are done in time to stop it ever reaching a point like that. Suni died in captivity, because the last of his species are in captivity. Imagine if the same thing happened for the African elephant (either of the two species?)… or any of the other rhino species?

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Using Forensics to Identify Poaching Ranges;

In 2004, a method of extracting DNA from within tusks and horns of elephants and rhinos was produced. Now, ten years later, this method is being used by scientists in Asia. DNA is being extracted from ivory confiscated from illegal sources, and is being used to track back the range of the animal from which it originated. This method is proving to be key in identifying the poaching ‘hot spots’ of elephants and rhinos in Africa.

One publication of the story is available here.

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A Successful Treatment;

On the 10th November 2014, one of Africa’s last Tuskers (known as Tim) has been successfully treated for a deep septic wound caused by a spear attack, most probably by a poacher.

Each step of the treatment process has been documented here.

Tim’s story provides evidence that not only can elephants survive poaching attacks, but with the correct support and well timed actions of dedicated humans, they can be treated successfully too.

“Tim” (sheldrickwildlifetrust)

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Proposed Tusk Modifcation Methods of Poaching Reduction

I found these two links, both covering proposed methods of reducing poaching by modifying the tusks of the elephants being hunted. Both were accompanied with arguments for and against the proposed plans.

The first is thus: if poachers want tusks, why not remove the tusks of the elephants and rhinos so there is no reason why the poachers will hunt them? Expert Cynthia Moss shoots down the idea instantly, despite understanding the basis of taking away the source of the killing of these creatures. The number of wild elephants roaming Africa might be on the drastic decrease, but there are still too many out there for a proposed method such as this to be undertaken upon each and every one of them. Additionally, the cost of the procedure is too expensive, even if all of the elephants were in one area and able to be easily stunned in order for the operation to occur.

tusks

But most importantly, even if it were logistically possible, tusks are not easy to remove. An elephant tusk is a modified tooth, complete with nerves running all the way down them, which if cut incorrectly bring huge levels of pain to the wounded creature (as described here). A rhino’s horn is similar, and both have the habit of not fully healing after removal; an elephant’s tusk will regrow, while there is a case of a rhino having survived having their horn removed, only for the hole in their face never to fully heal.

Besides, elephants evolved tusks for a reason, and to remove them cripples their day to day activities. Everything from foraging to fighting would suddenly become a lot more difficult.

The second method face similar problems; one blog has suggested staining the tusks of the elephants with a harmless dye, in order to make the ivory worthless in the eyes of the illegal trade, even going as far as to propose a program for how such a thing would be carried out. Unfortunately, the number of elephants still roaming the wild of Africa makes this a logistically hard option to consider, despite the merited points that it raises.

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Why This Topic?

To put it bluntly, elephants have always been what could be considered my favourite animal. My name is Ella, after all, and all through my life people have paired me with them, and I have never complained. I consider them to be wonderful creatures; intelligent and magnificent, and to learn about what humanity has done to them just makes me want to help them in anyway that I can.

It was always my dream to get the chance to work alongside these creatures, to spend time with them in a setting as close to being wild as was possible, and in July of 2013 I finally got that chance… and it was everything I had ever hoped it to be. I spent two weeks in Thailand, working with Asian elephants rescued from the domestic elephant industry, and my love for these creatures has done nothing but grown since that time.

I would love for everyone else to have the chance to share in the joy that I felt, the moment an elephant trusted me enough to embrace me with her trunk, the amusement at watching a year old youngster mimicking the adults in his heard at feeding time with a tiny trunk trying to scoop up food the adults had dropped for him, and the awe inspiring fear that came when the child was spooked by a human, and the adult elephants rallied to defend him. Every moment was amazing, and everything I saw has been stuck in my mind ever since, and I wish that other people had the chance to see it all too.

It’s almost heartbreaking to realise that someday, potentially within our lifetimes, there won’t be any elephants left in the wild to go and see.

A study, posted in the early months of 2013, revealed the truth behind the increase in demand for ivory originating from the developing Asian countries; Elephants, and rhinos, are on course to be completely extinct within 100 years thanks to poaching. If the rate continues in such a drastic manner, then they are on set to be gone within one tenth of that time. To lose such creatures would be devastating.

This blog is going to be a collection of information on the topic; the figures behind the facts, and any news of processes and methods that people are putting forward in an attempt to bring this poaching cull to an end. One species of rhino has already gone extinct in the wild, and now that there are actually more species of elephant than previously thought alive in this world, we only have more to lose.

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