‘Game changer’ in fight against rhino horn poachers

RHINOS wearing satellite tracking collars with spy cameras implanted into their horns could help turn the tables on poachers, experts believe.

Dr Paul ODonoghue with a sedated rhino ready to have a satellite camera fitted in a bid to halt poaching. Picture: PA
Dr Paul ODonoghue with a sedated rhino ready to have a satellite camera fitted in a bid to halt poaching. Picture: PA

The British-designed system incorporates a video camera, GPS, and a 24-hour heart-rate monitor that triggers an alarm the moment a rhino is shot.

Poachers caught in the trap will have no time to escape as park rangers are helicoptered to the scene of the crime within minutes. Video footage captured by the miniature horn camera will then provide the evidence needed to secure a conviction.

The hope is that the technology, which could be trialled in South Africa in the next six to nine months, will act as an effective deterrent against out-of-control rhino poaching. It could also be adapted for other hunted animals, including elephants and tigers.

A rhino complete with horn cam. Picture: PA

Dr Paul O’Donoghue, who developed the Protect RAPID (Real-time Anti Poaching Intelligence Device) system and has worked with endangered black rhino populations for more than 15 years, said: “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, pin-pointing 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.”

Since 2007, rhino poaching has increased by more than 9,000-fold in South Africa alone.

Patrolling every part of the vast landscapes where rhinos live is effectively impossible, meaning poachers often operate with no risk of being caught.

Dr O’Donoghue, a lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Chester, developed the anti-poaching system for the non-profit conservation organisation Protect which plans to conduct the first trials next year.

Protect director Steve Piper said: “Proof-of-concept research has already been completed and we’re ready to take the device into the field. We expect to have the first rhino prototypes out within months and are just beginning development on versions for tigers and elephants.

“We hope to have a fully functional control centre established early next year.”

Mammal ecologist Dean Peinke, from the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency in South Africa, said: “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.”

A research paper outlining the concept appears in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Claire Bass, executive director of the animal protection organisation Humane Society International UK, which contributed funding to the project, said: “The Protect RAPID could be a game changer in the increasingly desperate fight against poaching, and the technology has the potential to be applied to other critically endangered species including tigers and elephants.”