IOA Analysis in brief | Genetic rescue to repopulate endangered species, drones that patrol game parks from the air to detect animals in distress, and radar and optical imaging devices that relay real-time data to conservationists’ smart phones via satellite relays are some of the tools now employed to protect the African menagerie and wildlife.
- South Africa’s giant Kruger National Park has thwarted poachers with a new radar/video imagery system combined with trained sniffer dogs and will expand its use
- Kenya has found success with drones and motion-triggered cameras that track animal movements as well as their human predators
- Mauritius’ initiative to save its pink pigeon population through genetic rescue will be watched as a means to preserve other African species
Africans have honoured their natural endowment of wild animals long before the lucrative tourism industry made the Big Five animals the centrepiece of world travel to the continent. Wild animals have also been a source of food and ingredients for medicines and artefacts. Killing and transporting animals is illegal but for some restricted circumstances, and yet poaching continues at an alarming rate. Yet, natural heritages are at risk as well as the tourism trade, which is drawn to the thrill of an elephant or rhino sighting in the wild. Against well-armed poachers employed by international criminal syndicates, game parks and nature reserves are launching a high-tech counter-offensive.
Aided by conservationists, researchers and scientists throughout the world who are contributing to the preservation effort, the custodians of Africa’s animal habitats are employing technologies in aeronautics, genetics and surveillance to thwart poachers and to increase endangered populations.
Kenya and South Africa try spy technology against poachers
While China will ban trade in ivory by the end of 2017, and in April closed the country’s ivory processing factories, rising incomes in Asia still fuel a demand for African elephant parts for exotic foods and homeopathic medicine. In Vietnam, rhino horn sells for US$ 100,000 per kilogram. While only a small fraction of this money is given to indigent African poachers who do the dangerous dirty work of killing animals for international smuggling cartels, a family’s survival may depend on such illicit jobs. Giving communities a stake in animal conservation through tourism revenues and providing employment and better living standards so that poaching is not seen as a necessity are ongoing but long-term efforts for African countries. Meanwhile, animals must be protected by increasingly sophisticated electronic tools.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones as they are commonly called) were first used in Kenyan game parks to keep an eye on vast tracks of land impossible to thoroughly patrol on the ground. Game rangers cannot be everywhere at once, but poachers can strike anywhere. Poachers operate at night, and infrared imagery detects movement from above by tracking the heat signatures of animals and humans. Alerted by UAVs to suspicious activity through downlinks to rangers’ smart phones, armed parked personnel can rush to a particular site, hopefully before a kill is enacted. Kenya has more than 3,000 game rangers, and their task is made urgent by animal populations dwindling to the extinction level. Because of poaching, Kenya’s elephant herds have shrunk from 170,000 pachyderms in 1970 to about 40,000 today.
Tsavo National Park was the first of the Kenyan Wildlife Service’s 21 national parks, 28 national reserves and five national wildlife sanctuaries to have installed motion-triggered cameras. The cameras are set off by the passage of animals or poachers. Close to real-time images are then sent to the Iridium satellite system in orbit above Kenya, and these are accessed by rangers on laptops and tablets, as well as viewers anywhere in the world. In addition to alerting authorities of poaching, the images are valuable conservation tools showing the movements of animals that otherwise can be hard to locate in the wide-open spaces of parks that make up eight percent of Kenya’s landmass.
South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the country’s largest but also its most prone to poaching, adapted Kenya’s drone technology to help stop the carnage of its rhinos. In 2016, 662 rhinos were killed by poachers for their horns, following 826 slaughtered in 2015. Poaching incidents rose 17% from 2015 to 2016. However, drones proved inadequate to survey the park’s massive area of 20,720 km². In December 2016, a Wide Areas Surveillance System (WASS) went on-line. By March 2017, the first part of the system to be installed was hailed as a ‘game changer’. In one day alone that month, 13 poachers were detected and arrested. Because the Kruger can afford to hire only a quarter of the 2,000 rangers required to adequately police the far-flung park, WASS employs strategically-placed Reutech RSR 902 ground radar units at a cost of US$ 6 million. Optic sensors augment the radar, and beam data and real-time video images back to the park’s control centre. Specially-trained sniffer and tracking dogs complete the surveillance team. The dogs can sniff-out guns, ammunition and animals parts hidden in vehicles as they are inspected at the park gates.
Pink Pigeon of Mauritius makes a comeback
From only 20 alive in 1970, the rare pink pigeons of Mauritius now number 400, with 70 others captive in zoos around the globe. However, the pigeons in the wild are extremely endangered. Newly arrived animals like cats, rats and mongoose prey on the pink pigeon or eat its eggs, while non-native birds bring disease, devastating the indigenous pigeon population. Conservationists have made heroic efforts bringing back the pink pigeon from near extinction. However, the gravest threat facing the birds is genetic. Their gene pool is too limited from inbreeding from the less than 20 birds from which the population has grown. This has resulted in sickly birds that lay thin-shelled eggs, only half of which hatch.
With the wild bird population struggling to remain alive on an archipelago paradise that is increasingly attracting tourism, a radical solution of genetic rescue is being applied. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is undertaking a genomics conservation project that takes advantage of the genetic diversity found in the 70 pink pigeons scattered around the world. One by one, these captive birds are being reintroduced to the Mauritius wild, where they will mate with native pigeons and diversify the population’s genetic pool. The process has worked successfully to return to their native homes the populations of a diversity of animals, including the South Island robin, the Florida Panther and the Swedish Adder.
New age of scientific conservation
Conservation in Africa is now about more than protecting animal species against human predators, using high-tech surveillance gear to thwart poachers. This field also includes rescuing species that face extinction from a myriad of causes, such as Mauritius’ pink pigeon. As poachers are routed, the effects of another man-made threat, climate change, will continue to imperil the African menagerie. Conservationists will further embrace science and technological solutions to ensure the survival of Africa’s fauna and flora.