Can technology save the rhino from extinction?

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Rhinos, for their horns. Elephants, for their tusks. Pangolins, for their bush meat and scales. The list of endangered species poached for the black market is long, as we reach a crisis point for the world’s endangered wildlife.

The confusion and lack of a common global stance towards our world’s most endangered species could not have been better highlighted by the recent environmental merry-go-round in China. First, China lifts a 25-year ban on the sale of rhino and tiger parts, then backtracks following widespread criticism from the United Nations environmental groups. The ban postponement is temporary and could be reversed at any time. And although China assures the world that animal parts would only be taken from tigers and rhinos raised in captivity, the move would undoubtedly encourage illegal poaching and black-market trade.

In South Africa, the rhino is facing similar adversity, losing more than 1,000 of its number every year, which equates to three rhinos every day. If this decline continues, rhinos face extinction by 2025. Beyond rhinos, humans slaughter an estimated 27,000 elephants and 100,000 pangolins per year and, according to The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the ivory trade is at an all-time high. There really is no better time than now to help save endangered species.

Taking the battle to the poachers

This year has seen important progress in the fight against poaching. In October, all eyes were on London during the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, where political leaders, heads of state, ministers and experts from over 80 countries made commitments to end wildlife crime and its causes. A series of initiatives were announced at the conference, including Ivory Alliance 2024. This is a new coalition of political leaders, conservationists and celebrities whose aim is to bring together 30 more countries committed to national bans on ivory sales over the next six years. A Wildlife Financial Taskforce made up of over 30 global banks and financial institutions also launched, aiming to disrupt the international money flows linked to the illegal wildlife trade.

We have also seen significant advancements in science and technology helping to change the way we protect animals over the past 12 months. Following the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, in March 2018, a team of scientists has been investigating the use of IVF and stem cell technology to save the subspecies from extinction. Researchers are also exploring how DNA and genetic tracking can be used to identify and prosecute poachers.

In partnership with Cisco, Dimension Data has installed some of the world’s most sophisticated technology, including thermal imaging, biometric scanning, and powerful data analytics in a private game reserve located adjacent to the world-renowned Kruger National Park in South Africa. The project has been a resounding success. Since the technology for Connected Conservation was deployed in November 2015, the number of rhino poaching incidents decreased by 96%. In 2017, no rhinos in the reserve were poached.

While there had been great initiatives to protect the rhino over the years that were primarily reactive, the number of these animals being killed was increasing at an alarming rate. We knew that if we were to achieve real results, we would have to do things differently and take a proactive approach to tracking and monitoring the people entering the reserve – and especially without touching the animals. With this project, we are driving real change in conservation, demonstrating the capacity to protect not only the rhino, but also other endangered animals, in more geographies.

A multi-million dollar business is hard to topple

Unfortunately, the relentless advance of illegal trade in wildlife continues to thwart some of the most promising anti-trade policies and enforcement efforts. It is a multi-billion-dollar business, estimated to be one of the world’s largest contraband markets, and it is becoming more methodical, more organised, and more high-tech. Park rangers and governments are struggling to battle gangs of poachers that use advanced military equipment to take down their targets.

If rhinos become extinct, Africa will lose one of its greatest wildlife attractions, part of the iconic big five safari animals — lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino. This will seriously impact whole ecosystems — soil, insects, birds, vegetation, and more. Environmental damage has a ‘knock-on’ effect, so the impact of this loss will be keenly felt in areas such as tourism and employment. In many areas of the African Savannah, whole communities depend on tourism in and around game reserves.

Combatting poaching effectively will require a concerted global effort. This means adopting bold policies that encourage new behaviours; strengthening law enforcement to break the supply chain; following the money to disrupt profits; and using the latest technological developments to proactively protect endangered species against humans. We believe every life is worth protecting.

Doc Watson is Group Executive, Dimension Data