Don’t post that rhino pic

Lisa R. Lifshitz
“Please don’t post any of your rhino pictures on social media!”

This comment, given by a fellow tourist and echoed by one of the trackers from Save the Rhino Trust after spending an exhilarating morning tracking a black rhino in Damaraland, Namibia, reminded me how technology can be a force for both good and evil. Nowhere is this more evident in the fight against rhino poaching in Africa, where it is clear that technology is a double-edged sword for wildlife.

Presently, rhinos of all types are some of the most endangered animals in Africa. Since 2007, rhino poaching has increased 9,000 per cent. Rhinos are being slaughtered mercilessly due to the demand for their horns in Vietnam and China.

Despite the lack of any scientific data, pulverized rhino horn is believed to cure strokes, convulsions, and fevers, among other ailments. A single rhino horn can fetch more than $250,0000 on the black market.

With these kind of financial incentives, poachers scour social media looking for leads on where to find endangered species. Images posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can betray details of an animal’s location. As Mike Hower noted in his article on the dark side of digital technology, seemingly innocuous social media apps such as Instagram have become useful tools for tech-savvy poachers.

Apparently, in South Africa, poachers have gone so far as to send in young couples with GPS-enabled smartphones to photograph endangered rhinos. The exact GPS co-ordinates are attached to the picture, which allows poachers to come in after dark and track the animal. Clueless tourists thus become unwitting accomplices to poaching.

Conservationists have posted signs in wildlife reserves reminding people to turn off the geotag function and not disclose where the photo was taken. Plugging the longitude and latitude into Google Maps, for example, allows one to discover the exact spot where the photo was shot, give or take a few metres.

Amazingly, poachers can even identify markers in the background of photos, such as a particular grove of trees or a mountain peak. As some rhinos are sedentary and can remain in a general area for days at a stretch, the risk increases exponentially.

Would-be poachers or informants can then send a photo with a location tag to anyone or return to the spot later to seek out the rhino. Poachers use helicopters so they can cover large distances in a short period of time to hunt down the animal quickly.

Paranoia? In South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, two men killed a pair of white rhinos and were later arrested. In India, poachers killed a pair of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

In reaction, officials in South Africa have become more vigilant about rhino tourism, documenting the names and visits of tourists. Cellphones are forbidden on some safari vehicles. Desert Rhino Camp, where I stayed, did not have any Wi-Fi access, for which I was glad if it meant helping to preserve, even a little, the safety of the rhinos.

Social media is being used in other twisted ways. In March, Traffic, a strategic alliance of the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, issued a report that confirmed social media sites are increasingly being used in Asia as platforms for the illegal trade in a range of threatened species such as orangutan and sun bears.

“Traders are clearly moving to non-conventional methods of sale such as utilizing online portals and social media in order to evade detection, reach a broader audience, and increase transaction efficiency and convenience,” Traffic said in a report released to coincide with World Wildlife Day.

Growing numbers of traders are using closed groups on Facebook and password-protected online forums to reach Asian customers. Traffic said in one month in China last year, thousands of ivory products, 77 whole rhino horns, and large numbers of endangered birds were found advertised for sale on sites such as QQ and WeChat, which are popular in China, using code words for the various products.

On the positive side, social media is also being used to fight poachers. In cases that range from China and Africa to the United States, poachers who have bragged on social media have found themselves nabbed for their crimes by a combination of amateur sleuths and law enforcement worldwide.

Additionally, various new technologies are being tested and used to combat wildlife crime. Drones, satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis, hidden cameras, GPS location devices, and apps are all being implemented to try and predict, locate, track, and catch suspected poachers.

Drones in particular have really taken off (pun intended) in attracting funding for conservation efforts. In 2012, Google gave US$5 million to the World Wildlife Fund to purchase conservation drones to fly over parts of Africa and Asia in an attempt to help monitor and catch wildlife poachers. In March 2014, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation announced a 255-million rand (Cdn$22 million) donation for a three-year initiative in partnership with Nature Conservation Trust, South African National Parks, and a South African public benefit organization to combat poaching in Kruger National Park and test new anti-poaching technology.

In March, the Lindbergh Foundation announced the launch of the Air Shepherd program in South Africa, using military-style computer analytics to identify poaching hot spots, and then send silent drones equipped with night vision to track down poachers. In partnership with the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, they use algorithms to predict when and where the poaching will take place. Rangers are then pre-deployed to intercept poachers before the rhino is killed.

Can drones be used successfully to help combat rhino poaching? As noted by Save the Rhino in its excellent article on Rhinos and Drones, drones definitely have limitations as rhino-protection tools in the long term.

The technological limitations are myriad — they have a limited battery life, range must be within line-of-sight of the operator, and any malfunction can lead to an expensive crash. The payload (thermal-imaging equipment, etc.) can make them heavy, and gusty winds, hilly terrain, or other unfavourable conditions can make them difficult to operate.

Most importantly perhaps, unmanned drones still require skilled operators. If the operator has not received sufficient training, the capabilities will not be fully utilized. Worse, drone operators have allegedly been bribed to give out sensitive rhino location details to poachers.

Taking a different approach from using drones, Cisco and Dimension Data teamed up this year to deploy a number of different crime-fighting technologies in an unnamed South African reserve. Their initiative focuses on monitoring and tracking individuals as they enter the gates of the reserve and until they leave.

Dimension Data worked with Cisco to collect various bits of information about the game rangers, security personnel, tech, and control centre teams. They then created a secure Reserve Area Network and installed Wi-Fi hotspots at key points around the reserve. The second phase involves CCTV, drones sporting infrared cameras, thermal imaging, vehicle-tracking IoT sensors and seismic IoT sensors on a secure intelligent network.

All of this technology is operated on the site as a managed service and utilizes the cloud for data analytics and backup. Suspicious activities/crimes are supposed to be recorded and stopped as they happen. Depending on the results, the technology will be expanded to other reserves in Africa.

Many believe a low-tech solution still works better. In fact, tracker dogs, working alongside their human handlers, are responsible for more than 70 per cent of arrests of suspected poachers in Kruger. “Killer,” a Belgian Malinois dog, has led to 115 arrests over the past four years.

While drones are still being used, the goals now are more modest. “They’re not the game-changer they have been portrayed to be,” says Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, a book about the illegal rhino-horn trade.

In Namibia, SRT is currently focusing on increasing its field patrolling and monitoring (using a combination of vehicles and increased air and foot patrols), and working closely with their partners and with local communities to engage them in helping to save the rhino.

Since locals know where the rhinos are, more or less, and know how to find them, poachers will often send a middleman to bribe a local to go shoot the rhinos and hack off the horn for them. SRT critically seeks to engage black-rhino host communities to improve understanding of the long-term value to them of the rhinos, making them partners in rhino conservation.

This includes obtaining more local rhino rangers and liaising and engaging with schools and communities in town and in areas surrounding the rhino range. It’s a decidedly more low-tech approach that may be more useful than drones in protecting the rhino in the future.

However, the only way to really protect these magnificent animals will be to persuade would-be buyers in Asia to stop using their horns, which, unfortunately so far, technology — and social media — has not yet been able to successfully do.

For more information about the excellent work being done by Save the Rhino Trust (Namibia), visit its web site.

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