Written by Mitch Skiles on August 20, 2012 in Technology
Recently, South Africa has seen a great rise in the number of poachings of rhinoceros. The Asian market has a high demand for the endangered animal’s horn and many poor Africans (as well as some larger private companies) are jumping on the opportunity to make a large profit, apathetic to the rapidly decreasing population. Last year alone, 450 rhinos were found dead; killed for their horn. This is a large percentage of the less than 20,000 rhinos alive today.
Worse, unlike with the poaching elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns are able to be harvested while leaving the animal alive. In parts of East Asia (Vietnam, China and Yemen particularly), the keratin from the rhinoceros is believed to have great medicinal power, from curing the common cold to bewitching nightmares.
With the Asian stock market crash in 2008, it appeared that many people began investing in this newfangled medicine, and prices for rhino horn increased dramatically. Some estimate that one kg of the keratin horn can sell at a price point around $10,000 on the black market. Organized crime syndicates in Asia are only growing stronger with this influx of wealth and Africans are having difficulty matching their strength.
To help combat poaching and save the rhinoceros from extinction, a U.S. Company involved in producing technology for war efforts and border control has shifted its focus to aiding South African environmentalists. The company has deployed a number of military grade sensors onto a South African wine farm in Cape Town for testing. Their technology includes battlefield spy gear ranging from infrared radar to communications packages, technology actively used on by the United States military in Afghanistan and by the Department of Homeland Security on the U.S. Mexican border.
The tools have proved invaluable, protecting vital resources during battle, and the company believes that their equipment can also be adapted to protect a different kind of vital resource; the rhinoceros. If their trials are effective, they hope to begin selling the technology to private and public game parks. This is just one more step that African’s are taking in hope to deter poachers.
Other attempts have been made to protect the rhino, such as implanting GPS units in the animal’s horn. However the project failed because the batteries were not durable enough to withstand a reasonable amount of time in the wild. One activist believes it is time to “fight fire with fire” and is happy to see the new military equipment used to combat the poachers. But there are others who see extinction as imminent and would rather see an attack directly on the Asian black market. They believe that without a demand for the horn, profit margin will decrease and poachers will have no incentive to continue to hunt.
This presents the importance of interdisciplinary work in science and technological advancement. The spy gear designed for war might ultimately be the cure to protecting endangered species of animals, which could save the African economy. If the rhinoceros were to go extinct, the draw of tourists to visit Africa could disappear. Of course, this could also occur if any of “The Big Five” animals went extinct, but the new technology will hopefully slow, or stop that process. Two additional topics need to be considered when controlling animal extinction.
The first, related to tourism, is whether or not the rhinoceros is a vital resource. Rhinos are herbivores and therefore do not act as a population controller. They also have very few natural predators so their removal from the ecosystem would not create a large change in the environment. Humans are only interested in their horns. Ultimately, the rhinoceros is valued primarily for its majestic beauty. Is their protection worth the millions of dollars that will be spent on the new equipment used to prevent poaching? Perhaps it would be wiser to inject the money directly into the African economies where it is needed most. With the hunger epidemic running rampant through the many nations of the great continent, should the well-being of an animal take priority to the wellbeing of the people?
Finally, this presents one solution on effective ways to combat illicit, market driven activity. Typically, focus is direct when attempting to stop poachers. Following that trend, the spy material will help by directly intercepting poachers before they are able to hunt and kill the rhinos. However, because the incentive is so great, the poachers will ultimately find a way to find their treasure. The direct approach will certainly slow down the extinction process but will most likely not resolve it. Another approach would be to indirectly attack poachers by targeting and destroying market demand. Flooding the market with artificial horns or sabotaging orders should decrease demand, increase supply, and therefore reduce market price. This would take away incentives for poachers, and could even be cheaper than the expensive technology used to directly combat poaching. Studying the effectiveness of these techniques could also help conquer other world issues such as illegal drug trafficking. What is most important now for Africa though is to at least attempt something.
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