Rhino poaching has soared in recent years driven by the demand for rhino horns. Powdered horn is used in traditional Asian medicine as a supposed cure for various symptoms illnesses, such as fever, gout, rheumatism, and cancer. Rhino horns are also increasingly used as a status symbol to display wealth and success. To keep watch on the endangered species and keep them safe from poachers, a Duke University-led study has introduced software that reads and analyzes footprints left by black rhinoceros so that they can monitor their movements in the wild.
The Footprint Identification Technique
According to Phys.org, the software called Footprint Identification Technique (FIT) runs on the JMP computer program from SAS and uses an advanced algorithm to read and analyze more than a hundred measurements of black rhino footprints. The authors said that every footprint of rhinos is unique, just like a human fingerprint. The analysis of images can then be done electronically using a global database, which contains previously gathered footprint images.
If a match is found in the said database, the conservationists can determine the individual rhino who left the mark. Then, by knowing the locations of other places where the mark has been seen, it is easier to track the movements of the rhino without coming into close enough contact with the species or disturbing them in the wild. This process of tracking their location reduces the risk of animal-to-human viral transmissions too, explained Zoe Jewell, an adjunct associate professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment.
Jewell said the approach is cost-effective that it does not just bring the traditional tracking skill into the 21st century but it also protects the health of the rhino population and the human. The team is now working with the Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism of Namibia, a country in Southern Africa to train land managers, wildlife conservationists, anti-poaching agents, and local guides on how they can use the technology.
Last month, Rhino poaching in Namibia falls by more than 60%. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism cited that intensified intelligence operations conducted by authorities as well as tougher fines and sentences for poachers led the drop. The ministry added that elephant poaching, which happens to a lesser extent than rhino poaching, has likewise decreased.
Rhino poaching in Southern Africa
Rhino poaching has overwhelmed the region for decades. This caused Namibia to increase fines for rhino poaching to 25 million Namibian dollars from N$20,000. The country’s prison sentences have also increased to 25 years from 20.
SavetheRhino, a charity that works to conserve all five rhino species across Africa and Asia, published that there were 753 African rhinos poached in 2019. The rhino poaching crises started in 2008 and the number continues to grow until 2015 (1,349). Despite the decrease of rhino poaching, though, a rhino is still killed every 10 hours and there is still a lot more that is needed to be done.
So far, the country that holds about 80% of the world’s rhinos in South Africa and it has recorded 594 poaching incidents last year.
Jewell and the team went on to say that routinely censusing the population of rhinoceros is important to their protection from illegal killing and for conservation. In Namibia, both black (Diceros bicornis) and white (Ceratotherium simum) rhinoceros happen on private land. About black rhinoceros, it is under the custodianship program of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Custodian landowners of black rhinos in the country are responsible for the protection of the rhinoceroses on their land. They are also required by law to regularly report to the MET.
Monitoring these black rhinos imposes a financial burden on custodians but many of the techniques they used still involve expensive approaches that include the need for animal instrumentation and/or aerial support. With the use of FIT, they believe that it is a less costly alternative that rhinoceroses’ custodians can use. They encourage landowners to host black rhinos to evaluate the method that works best for their resources and needs.
Namibia is home to about 2,000 black rhinos, which is nearly 90% of the species’ total population worldwide. Although they are legally owned by the Namibia government, the animals are still geographically dispersed on private lands across the country. Jewell said that you have these animals with horns that are worth $100,000 or more and they could disappear into the backcountry. This is why it is an almost irresistible target for rhino poachers. Even authorities in the country usually don’t know that a black rhino has already gone missing or illegally poached until they found its carcass or bones.
Using the digital image of rhino footprint
The use of FIT only uses the heel patter of the animal by viewing the digital image of the footprint and they can quickly compare the images on the FIT database for a match. Scientists and anti-poaching patrols can take advantage of such technology that can best meet individual needs. Not only that, but the software can also conduct a survey of footprints throughout the protected area and take the measurements from every print to determine the number of rhinos found in that location.
Database company Statista likewise shares the number of rhinos poached in Africa by country between 2006 and 2013. South Africa fell victim to the largest number of rhino poaching (1,805) during the said period. It is followed by Zimbabwe (382), Kenya (112), Mozambique (67), Namibia (5%), Tanzania (5), Democratic Republic of Congo (4), Swaziland (2), Botswana (2), Malawi (2), Zambia (1), and Uganda (0). The figures are based on data collected by StopRhinoPoaching.com from different environmental groups and national sources.
Habitat loss is another threat to rhinos, which are solitary animals that often shy away from human contact. They usually require a large area to live and gaze and they often live alone. However, as human settlement gradually moves into these species’ territories, there has become a depletion in their natural resources. As a result, rhinos are usually forced to search elsewhere for a suitable place to breed, live, and raise their young.
Conservationists and countries need to match such level of technology to tackle the poaching problem alongside reducing the demand for rhino horns.