Rhinos, for their horns. Sharks, for their fins. Elephants, for their tusks. Tigers, for their organs and skins.
The list of endangered species poached for pieces of their bodies to be sold illegally on the black market is long. Unfortunately, as these species decline and poaching becomes more difficult, the problem hasn't slowed — instead it has become more methodical, more organized and more high-tech. Park rangers and governments are struggling to battle almost mafia-like gangs that use helicopters, night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles to take down their targets.
But technological advances have not been limited to tools used for poaching — they offer amazing solutions to catch poachers as well. Here are seven tools that are making a difference.
As the cost of drones drops and they become easier to use, these high-tech tools have been filling an important role for conservationists and park rangers who want to stop poachers. Already, drones have been used to protect endangered species from Kenya to Nepal to whales in the ocean. Google awarded the World Wildlife Fund $5 million through the Global Impact Awards, money to be spent on technology that can further conservation efforts including aerial surveillance drones. Having eyes in the sky, especially on a tiny and quiet vehicle, is a major boon for teams protecting endangered species.
Sometimes deterring poachers means making sure they know they will be caught, even if they pull off committing the crime and selling the ill-gotten wares. That's where forensic tracking comes into play, a tactic that is working with several species. For instance, when illegal shark fins are confiscated, scientists are learning how to use the DNA in the fin to trace the shark back to where it originated, right down to distinctive populations. They can then use this DNA "ZIP code" to tell authorities where to watch for illegal shark finning and catch the culprits. This works with at least two species of sharks, the dusky shark and the copper shark. It won't work for every species, especially those that move in wide ranges, but it works for some and that is good news for these endangered shark species.
Another DNA tracking strategy works with rhinos. The Rhino DNA Indexing System (RhoDIS) includes data from 2010, including somewhere around 5,800 rhino poaching crimes. The system, according to a January 2018 study published in Current Biology, has directly led to sentences for poachers. A confiscated horn can be traced back to the exact rhino it was taken from, which can give authorities a lead on finding the poacher and traffickers that have put the horn on the market. Knowing that you could be caught even after the goods are out of your hands could be a strong deterrent and make poachers think twice.
In 2013, Kenya Wildlife Services announced it was going high tech with fencing around certain reserves in an attempt to keep poachers and endangered species well away from one another. The fences sound an alarm and text wildlife rangers if it is tampered with — either by poacher or by an animal. Once the text is received, the rangers can head straight to the affected area to see what is going on. This tool is only for smaller areas, conservancies small enough to be fenced in at all, and wouldn't work for the large preserves. However, some protection for certain areas is better than nothing, and perhaps not knowing which fences are rigged with alarms will deter poachers to some extent. Indeed, officials hope that the fences can stop up to 90 percent of the poaching within fenced areas.
Stealthy hidden cameras
A company called Wildland Security created TrailGuards, a tiny trail camera that can be hidden in tree trunks, shrubs, and other crevasses along trails. The cameras are triggered by the movement of large animals, the same as camera traps that researchers use. However, the camera is programed to recognize potential threats and sends the image immediately to anti-poaching teams, who can take a look and act if they see the image reveals a poacher.
Hidden cameras, like alarm fences, are not a perfect solution for catching poachers. With the TrailGuard, there's the issue of the cost of equipment and the Internet connection to send and receive images, a cost that many wildlife preserves and parks cannot afford. There is also the time it takes to get to the location where a potential poacher was spotted during which they may be able to make their kill. But hidden cameras do have their place in the arsenal and can be useful in certain circumstances.
Google Earth and GPS collars
Google Earth has provided a wealth of information and discovery for scientists and conservationists scanning the globe from their computer screens. But it can also be a real-time tool to end poaching. Save the Elephants uses Google Earth along with GPS tracking collars on elephants to monitor the movements of herds, noting not only their location but how quickly they are moving. They can use the almost real-time data to trace if an individual or herd seems to be running from pursuers, as well as if an animal has stopped moving and may have fallen victim to poaching. The team receives alerts on mobile devices when an elephant's movements are unusual, telling them when to pay attention and where to go to investigate.
The nonprofit is not only using Google Earth to track movements and provide help to the animals in the field, but also to provide high-quality data to the public. The Elephants in Peril website uses the Google Maps Engine and Fusion Tables to show the story of elephant populations over time and across the continent, revealing trends and driving mainstream interest for protecting the species.
Anti-snare collars with emergency alerts
A serious threat to some species doesn't come from being actively hunted down but through passive hunting by snares. Poachers set snares that snag species like lions, cheetahs, leopards and painted dogs around the neck. This often means a slow and painful death while waiting for the poacher to check traps. The Wildlife Act Fund has an interesting solution — snare-proof collars that call for help. The collars are similar to the wide leather bands of a GPS tracking collar, except thicker and with rows of small metal knobs that will grab the snare and prevent it from choking or cutting into the animals' neck. The collar then alerts the team that the animal has stopped moving or is separated from the pack, meaning it could be injured or trapped. The team can then locate it to help it, and release it back into the wild.
Embedded GPS chips
The Rhino Rescue Project uses GPS technology, as well as a brilliant use of dye, to proactively stop poachers by making the horns undesirable in the first place. The project infuses a bright pink indelible dye into the horn using a high-pressure device. They also insert three GPS microchips into the horn. Not only is the horn undesirable because it is now forever pink, it is also undesirable because it's marked as one with microchips hidden somewhere inside that would take awhile to fish out, probably damaging the horn and decreasing its value in the process. Conservationists watching the rhino's movements would be able to tell if something strange is going on, and if the horn is moving in an unusual way (like at the speed of a get-away jeep or helicopter for a long stretch, for instance). This pink dye deterrent may not help rhinos hunted by the cover of night with night-vision goggles, since the color wouldn't show up. But it will help deter poachers hunting or scouting for rhinos in the light of day. It's unfortunate that we've gotten to a place where wild rhinos running around with bright pink, microchipped horns is the best protection, but pink is certainly better than extinct.
Editor's note: This story was originally written in March 2013 and has been updated with new information.