Camera-Embedded Horns Could Make Rhino Poachers an Endangered Species

“Protect RAPID” puts the power to stop poaching directly in the hands—and horns—of the very rhinos they’re trying to protect.

image via (cc) flickr user frted

Rhinoceroses are one of our planet’s most majestic, and endangered, species. Since 2009, the rate of rhino poaching has increased an astonishing nine thousand percent in South Africa alone, with much of the profits from, and impetus for, the killings coming from the high black market demand for the animal’s horn. But thanks to a new innovation designed to stem the tide of rhinoceros deaths, those very horns which have drawn poachers to rhinos in the first place may ultimately be what ends up putting the worst poaching offenders behind bars for good.

in-horn camera // image via protect rapid

Protect RAPID,” (“Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device”) is a high tech system intended to stop poachers in their tracks. Protect RAPID is comprised of three parts—a heart rate monitor, a camera embedded inside the animal’s horn, and a GPS locator—all of which are applied to a rhinoceros by trained conservationists, biologists, and nature preserve staff. ​While much attention has been paid to the in-horn camera rig, the system is only truly effective when all three elements are working in sequence. Explains Dr. Paul O'Donoghue, one of the researchers behind Protect RAPID:

Currently a rhino is butchered every six hours in Africa, the issues are many, but there's far too much money at stake to believe that legislation alone can make the difference, we had to find a way to protect these animals effectively in the field; the killing has to be stopped.

With this device, the heart rate monitor triggers the alarm the instant a poaching event occurs, pinpointing the location within a few metres so that rangers can be on the scene via helicopter or truck within minutes, leaving poachers no time to harvest the valuable parts of an animal or make good an escape. You can't outrun a helicopter, the Protect RAPID renders poaching a pointless exercise.

One of the challenges with stemming the tide of poaching has long been the rhinoceros’s vast habitats—the large tracts of nature preserve or park land on which the animals are free to wander. Because rhinos occupy such wide swatches of land, park rangers have been at a disadvantage when it comes to responding to a reported poaching quickly enough to apprehend those responsible. No matter how fast a ranger’s helicopter and jeeps can travel, without knowing exactly where a rhino has been killed, all that speed is, ultimately, useless. It’s this problem which Protect RAPID’s instantaneous, and geographically accurate, notification system resolves. It can both direct authorities to a kill site, as well as collect the visual evidence of the kill necessary to ultimately convict and imprison the poachers. Says Dean Peinke, a specialist for South Africa's Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency:

“We simply don't know where or when poachers might strike, to effectively patrol these vast landscapes requires an army and still poachers could find a way through; they are well organised and equipped, and they will find gaps in almost any defence because the rewards are so great. “

These devices tip the balance strongly in our favour, if we can identify poaching events as they happen we can respond quickly and effectively to apprehend the poachers; it's very exciting to be able to work with Dr O’Donoghue and Protect on the first field trials of the Protect RAPID with our own Southern black rhino population.”

Heart-monitors and GPS tracking aside, horn-mounted cameras are not the first instance of conservationists zeroing in on the rhino’s distinctive protuberance as a potential source of poaching relief. Bioengineering startup Pembient raised eyebrows recently with an announcement of plans to “print” artificial, but biologically indistinguishable, rhino horns intended to hopefully sate the poaching black market. Pembient’s plans have been met with a measure of skepticism and frustration from some conservationists, worried the artificial horns might accidentally legitimize the superstitions and beliefs which, in part, fuel the rhino black market. Still, the researchers behind Protect RAPID seem to be in agreement that the only way to truly finish off poaching is to not only stop the poachers themselves, but “end the market demand” as well.

Per its website, Protect RAPID is reportedly gearing up for field-testing their design, and expect to see prototypes of their system in the wild during the coming year. A release from Protect RAPID’s partners Humane Society International indicates interest in expanding the system to accommodate elephants and tigers, two other species in need of significant poaching protections, as well.

[via inhabitat]

Julian Meehan

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