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Poachers, Conservationists Use Drones and GPS in Wildlife Battle

Image: An endangered east African black rhinoceros and her calf.

An endangered east African black rhinoceros and her calf. Tom Kirkwood / Reuters

LONDON — It's a decades-old war, but conservationists and poachers alike are using 21st century technology like GPS and drones in their fight to protect endangered wildlife on the plains of Africa.

Now Namibia, an arid desert country on Africa's southwestern coast that holds half the world's remaining black rhino population, is turning increasingly to hi-tech conservation.

Ninety-six percent of the black rhino population has been wiped out since the 1970s. In Namibia, which has 79 conservation areas, no rhinos were lost to poachers between 2005 and 2010, and just one was killed in 2011. But in 2014 that number jumped to 24.

The rampant slaughter across the border in South Africa, where 1,250 rhinos were poached in 2014, has Namibia's Save the Rhino Trust worried that the country is "on the radar of syndicates."

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Rhino horns can fetch as much as $43,000 per pound in Asia. Even de-horned rhinos have been taken by poachers, and the threat to Namibia's safe havens has conservationists up in arms and has prompted the government to deploy army units against poachers. "Some poaching attempts have been thwarted by conservancy members, but the situation is a growing concern as middlemen are willing to pay exorbitant prices to poachers," said Chris Weaver of the World Wildlife Fund, a veteran of international conservancy.

In their high-stakes battle against poachers, conservationists have turned to drones, which provide essential night-time surveillance through thermal imaging. But just as conservationists use modern technology, so too do poachers. And high tech carries a high cost: An advanced drone with a battery life of between five and six hours costs around $250,000.

"Ultimately it's a question of trust, because high-tech equipment can be used both ways, to protect and to hunt down animals. Let's hope the protectors win."

Another high-tech tool, the "shot spotter" system, is being trialed in Kenya. It is made up of a series of microphones placed high in treetops that can detect gunshots up to two miles away and alert nearby rangers with coordinates. The system may not always prevent the kill, but poachers tend to leave evidence that makes prosecution easier if the site is reached quickly.

But while drones and other high-tech tools are helpful, they are no magic bullet, says conservationist Florian Weise, a researcher at the Naankuse Foundation, a Namibian farm where volunteers help build the next generation of conservationists.

"It's still mainly down to humans if this war is to be won," he said.

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The foundation rescues abandoned or problem animals, from a nocturnal aardvark to a tamed cheetah roaming the capital city, and relocates them to more suitable areas. The farm has successfully moved 23 cheetahs and six leopards to areas where they are less likely to clash with humans.

Cheetah as 'Conservation Ambassador'

Joris, a young cheetah who had become too used to humans to ever adjust to the wild again, is being trained as a "conservation ambassador." Joris was named after 7-year-old Joris Hutchinson, a Seattle boy who single-handedly raised enough funds — some $1,800 — to sponsor a GPS collar for Naankuse's big cat research. He did it through a combination of selling lemonade, soliciting donations online and selling flowers from his grandparents' nursery in Oregon, his mom said. The little boy now dreams of becoming an animal scientist.

The researchers at Naankuse have also been building successful relationships with surrounding farmers, many of whom are now taking part in the conservation of big cats where they would once have shot them as a first resort.

Image: Joris Boekee stands in front of a young Cheetah that was named after him.
Joris Boekee stands in front of a young Cheetah named after him at the Naankuse conservation farm. Supplied / NAANKUSE

Having collared over 80 big cats, mostly leopards and cheetahs on farms in Namibia, they send out daily GPS tracking data that tells farmers where the predators, including hyena, travel. That allows them to take precautionary measures.

"It works for the farmers," Weise said. "We've managed to decrease livestock loss on a small budget and we're being pragmatic about it. Not every predator can or should be saved, but going at it in a non-confrontational way increases tolerance towards predators.

"The GPS data tells them where the predators are, they can keep their livestock out of harm's way and they create an added tourist attraction for wildlife photography fans.

"In fact, shooting an alpha male will make the problem worse, because a number of younger rivals will swell the numbers of predators in that area almost immediately."

Babette Stoeck, who runs a farm nearby, has become quite protective of the leopards there. She gets email updates from the researchers.

"It can help help to use a mixture of high-tech, like the GPS tracking info and low-tech, like bringing up a young mule together with calves, so they stick together. Leopards really don't like to tangle with an angry mule," she said.

"Ultimately it's a question of trust, because high-tech equipment can be used both ways, to protect and to hunt down animals. Let's hope the protectors win."