By Hilary Heuler
NAIROBI-- Conservationists struggling to track down and prosecute poachers hunting for rhino horn, ivory and bush meat are turning to new technologies like DNA identification and surveillance drones to give them an edge in the war on poaching.
Africa’s fight against poaching is often described as a war. The slaughter is on the rise, fueled by growing Asian demand for ivory and rhino horn. Experts estimate more than 35,000 African elephants are killed every year. Rhino poaching is thought to have reached record levels.
Faced with such formidable foes, African conservationists no longer rely on simple foot patrols. This is a modern war and it is becoming increasingly high-tech.
Several weeks ago, a small white airplane, the DT26, took to the skies over the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. The plane is an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, and its designers hope it will soon be used to catch poachers.
Mike Chambers runs Bathawk Recon, the company that made the drone. He said right now, Tanzania’s embattled rangers do not have the resources to even keep up with poachers.
“With a quarter of a million square kilometers of protected area, it’s impossible with the budget that Tanzania has to cover that area effectively," he said. "Resources available to rangers just aren’t going to be able to do it, especially at the moment, where the resources for poachers are rising because of the international demand.”
His drones, he said, can patrol vast swathes of territory that would be otherwise impossible to monitor. It is a technological solution that lets manpower be deployed more effectively. He hopes it will give park authorities the upper hand.
“Drones give a multiplier effect to rangers," he said. "If we can cover four or five thousand square kilometers with a pod of drones, then fewer rangers are needed to cover that area because they can be organized as a reaction force, and go where we have found the incidents to be occurring.”
In neighboring Kenya, the wildlife service is focusing on cutting edge genetics to strengthen legal cases against poachers. Earlier this month, they opened a forensics and genetics lab in Nairobi, where suspected bushmeat can be identified.
Philip Muruthi of the African Wildlife Foundation said along with ivory poaching, illegal bushmeat hunting is also cutting into Kenya’s wildlife population, but until now prosecuting perpetrators has been difficult. Poachers often claim giraffe or zebra meat is beef, said Muruthi, and it can be hard to prove otherwise.
“Often law enforcers in the wildlife area lose their cases because they cannot authenticate," he said. "They can’t prove in a court of law that that which they are using as an exhibit is actually prohibited wildlife material.”
The new lab should be able to tell the difference. But Muruthi said it will also build a genetic database of Kenya’s endangered animals that should help prosecute ivory and rhino horn poachers as well.
“When you find samples from anywhere in the world you can take those samples and match them to your database, and be able to say where the confiscated item comes from," he added. "So if you are trying to nail somebody in a court of law, you can say, ‘well, this is something that you are trafficking illegally.’”
Conservationists point out that technology is only as good as the people behind it, and that Africa’s endangered animals still depend on the political will to protect them — which, they say, is sometimes lacking.
If this war is to be won, it will take the best tools available.