As Conservation Efforts Increase, so do the Motivations and Resources of Poachers

The latest toll on Africa’s wildlife has been unthinkable. Our planet is dealing with an unmatched spike in prohibited wildlife trade, threatening to upset decades of development and conservation gains.  Innocent animals are being butchered for nothing more than skin and bones.

Successful conservation efforts over the last few years have actually presented a brand new problem for the ongoing struggle.  The success of the recently increased protection for the animals has actually created a scarcity for ivory, Rhino tusks, and other illegal wildlife resources.  This in turn has skyrocketed their respective prices.   For example, Rhino horns have recently commanded huge prices, upward of $100,000/kg, making them one of the world’s most valuable contraband substances, right on par with heroin.

With the illegal hunting of big game in Africa now being a multi-million dollar business, the level of sophistication and determination of the criminal poachers has increased tenfold.  The harder conservationists are working to protect the animals, the more people are attempting poaching.  They are now also equipped with with better weapons, support from millionaire distributors, helicopters, and counter surveillance equipment.

One of many horror stories from the high tech poaching industry is one of an entire herd of elephants being attacked with a tranquilizer gun.  While the animals were stunned the poachers moved in with customized surgical instruments to remove the tusks, leaving the Elephants to bleed out.  The entire operation was carried out in complete silence and only discovered from the ugly remains left behind.

This type of crime combined with the new level of commitment and resources from the perpetrators requires an even greater level of commitment and resources to combat it. Todays park rangers are more resemblant of soldiers than the science/nature types of park “yogis” we enjoy here in North America.  

Africa’s park rangers are now equipped with technology to help them combat the new-age criminals.  One of their most useful resources are drone autopilot systems. On African land in the deadly nights, poachers often stay invisible to the rangers just 100m away. With a wingspan of less than a meter, hand-launched drones with night vision can offer a helpful extra pair of eyes. Rangers at the base can easily operate the drone through two laptops, one showing the UAV’s vision via high-definition camera, while the other showing the map to follow the flight path.

Tracking the movements of animal herds is also a very effective way to provide protection for them.  By tracking the animals, rangers are also predicting the movements of the poachers who follow.  Using a series of GPS trackers on the animals themselves, solar-powered motion sensors on trees and posts, and new tracking systems which can be embedded within the horn of a Rhino, have all become new, high-tech methods to battle poaching.  The Rhino horn tracking system in particular has presented a very unique obstacle for poachers.  A tracking device is implanted in both the horn, and another part of the animal.  Should the horn become separated from the body of the animal, the trackers will know.  Also, should smugglers attempt to move the horn, they can be tracked and charged with greater crimes as the device can link the contraband back to the specific scene of slaughter and the specific animal that was victimized.This battle has also facilitated the emergence of unlikely heroes such as Brice Mouapele.  Brice is a pygmy and formerly an elephant poacher but when last year when Congo introduced its “poachers to protectors” program, Brice signed up.  The program is presented as an opportunity for poachers to escape their lifestyles by surrendering their weapons and providing information valuable to wildlife protection.  In return, they are granted an opportunity to join the ranks of the protectors and patrol the animal habitat for the other side.  Brice claims to love his new occupation and patrols the forest with renewed vigor and respect for animal life.

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