Poachers and Conservation Groups Are in a High-Tech Arms Race

A baby black rhinoceros walks with its mother in an enclosure at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo

Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, poachers in Zimbabwe managed to kill more than 300 elephants (and scores of other animals) in a single swoop by poisoning a lake with cyanide. Then reports turned up of someone trying to hack into an Indian wildlife manager’s email in order to steal data from a tiger’s GPS collar. And this week, managers in Kenya announced that they will be constructing a DNA database and outfitting all of their black rhinos with identification microchips.

Chemical weapons, cyber attacks, and DNA analysis—the war between conservationists and poachers has never been more high tech. But then, with an industry valued at $19 billion annually, it’s easy to see why both poachers and those who fight them have had to up their game.

Consumers of traditional Chinese medicine and unscrupulous collectors will literally pay more than a rhino horn’s weight in gold. Heightened demand means poachers can make investments into bigger guns, night-vision goggles, and even air support. Unfortunately, conservation funding doesn’t work on quite the same principles, which is why organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are crucial to the war effort. The rhino horn-tagging wouldn’t have been possible without a WWF donation of 1,000 chips and five scanners worth about $15,000.

Like the RFID tags you can have inserted into your pets or cattle, a microchip the size of a grain of rice will allow officials to positively identify where a horn comes from—and thanks to a matching tag in the animal’s body, they’ll also know which individual the horn was hacked off of. That means when a rhino horn is confiscated in some back alley, they can determine its exact origin and legality. (There are all kinds of loopholes traffickers use to avoid prosecution, including claiming the horn is an antique or that it’s from a legal kill, which actually do exist.) But you can’t loophole an RFID tag and a DNA database.

“It really opens up possibilities in terms of investigation,” said Matt Lewis, African species expert for the WWF. “If that horn shows up somewhere in Europe or Asia, you can tie the person in possession of the horn back to the scene of the crime, and you can start to find out how the horn got from Point A to Point B.”

In other words, the microchips are a passive technology. They may not prevent poaching in and of themselves, like armed guards or dyeing a horn, but they help authorities build a case, which is probably better in the long run. All the more so if you can take a rhino horn possession case in Asia to take down the channels of a global network, a la The Wire. And that’s no overstatement—Lewis describes the forces they’re up against as a “highly organized, international crime syndicate.”

Some organizations have begun to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, with mixed results. A company called Kashmir Robotics is even offering a $25,000 prize to encourage the creation of a drone designed specifically for anti-poaching efforts. Other campaigns have focused on giving rangers better tools to use in the field, making their patrols more efficient and, hopefully, safer. 

But for every advance conservationists make, there’s an equal and opposite story that just kicks you in the teeth … like the elephant poachers in Namibia who realized circling vultures were giving away the location of their kills. Their solution? Poison the elephant carcasses. As a result, officials found a mound of 600 dead vultures scattered around a single elephant carcass.

According to Lewis, technologies like drones and DNA analysis help, but we can’t look at them like cure-alls. “[N]one of those solutions replace boots on the ground,” he said.

Of course, it’s absolutely essential that rangers are equipped with better resources. Lewis told me about a case in South Africa last year in which officials came upon a man in the bush carrying a bloody ax. Obviously, red flags immediately went up, but plausible deniability has gotten many a poacher off scot-free. However, thanks to DNA analysis, the officials were able to match the blood on the ax to a dead rhino nearby and eventually charge the man with poaching.

It may sound like a small victory—the prosecution of one man—but convictions give rangers power. And in a world where when rangers are consistently out-gunned and out-manned, respect is a precious weapon.