By Franklin Cross
To the horror of naturalists and lovers of wild animals, poachers of rhinos, elephants, and other large mammals in East Africa are bringing to their grim work the technology of sophisticated military operations, including night tracking devices and long-range sniper rifles. And they are winning the war.
The recent toll on East Africa's wildlife has been horrific. Big game animals are dying, not of natural causes but because they are being slaughtered for bones and skin. Last year some 385 elephants were butchered for their ivory tusks. In October 2013, officials in Mombasa seized a 4-ton cache of ivory as it was being loaded to a vessel in the harbor. Some species are now at risk of extinction. What drives this awful drama? The short answer is 'money.'
Ivory fetches between $200 and $500 per pound on the black market, while rhino horn, much harder to obtain, can easily bring $12,000 a pound in markets in China and Vietnam. For rewards like these, poachers are willing to train hard, as a military unit would, using assault rifles and night-vision goggles. They develop strong bush skills that make them formidable combatants when confronted by law enforcement. Modern, military-style poachers will not hesitate to kill park rangers who interfere with them. A year ago, in January 2013, Somali poachers working the Kasigau Wildlife Corridor in southeast Kenya fatally shot Wildlife Service Ranger Abdullahi Mohammed. A colleague was shot in the face, but survived with crippling injuries.
Kenya's legislators have slowly responded with tough new laws to combat the increasingly militarized poachers. Penalties for killing animals may be made more severe (the maximum punishment a poacher currently faces is a mere 36 months in prison). But more intriguing are proposals to turn technology against sophisticated poachers. For example, Kenya's game wardens announced in October that they will now routinely implant a microchip transponder into every rhinoceros within Kenya's borders. It is thought that only 900 living rhinos still roam Kenya's game parks, down from thousands only decades ago.
Ground-up rhino horn is considered a more powerful aphrodisiac than Viagra in many wealthy communities of Southeast Asia, where deluded males believe that drinking powdered rhino horn in their tea will give them massive penile erections. In fact, rhino horn is made of keratin, the same material as comprises human fingernails. Drinking powered rhino horn is thus chemically indistinguishable from drinking pulverized human fingernails. It has no effect whatever on sexual drive.
A British parachute regiment stationed at Nanyuki will coordinate the implantation of the microchips, which will greatly facilitate tracking the endangered rhinos. More....