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Can Technology Save The Rhinos?

Harapan roams about his enclosure eating leaves during his final day at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Tana Weingartner
Harapan roams about his enclosure eating leaves during his final day at the Cincinnati Zoo.

International conservationists, desperate to save endangered species, have turned to technology in the hope it will make a difference  before it's too late.

Protect is beginning to implant tiny cameras in the horns of rhinos. The rhinos also wear a bright turquoise radio collar equipped with a heart-rate monitor. If a poacher approaches the animal's heart rate will jump. That triggers an alarm and sends GPS coordinates to rangers who come quickly in a truck or by a helicopter. Here is video from the embedded camera:


Another idea comes from a Seattle-based bioengineering firm, Pembient. It makes fake rhino horns using the DNA of rhinos. According to the Smithsonian Magazine's November 2015 edition, "Co-founder Matthew Marcus says he foresees the day when illicit buyers will use genetic tests to authenticate their loot, and he wants his counterfeits to pass muster. Eventually he wants to 3D print in bulk and flood the market.

The Rhino Rescue Project injects an anti-parasitic drug and dye into the horn to disfigure it and make it unattractive to the poachers.

Air Shepherd is using drones to spot poachers. The UAVs are equipped with infrared cameras and send footage back to the drone operators.

Cincinnati Zoo reproductive physiologist Monica Stoops has been monitoring how well some of these methods are working. On the cameras, she says, "There is some feedback from some game reserves where that would be more of an option for them because they have a limited number of animals in a confined space that they are monitoring, ... they could deploy some of their protection out to them."

Cincinnati’s very rare rhino Harapan is now in Sumatra waiting for his quarantine to end so he can join animals of his same species. His preserve is apparently safe, with armed guards at Way Kambas National Park and seven to ten roaming units to scope out snares and encroachers.

The zoo did an update on Harapan:


According to the World Wildlife Fund, 1,300 rhinos were killed in 2014, up from 13 in 2007. An estimated 35,000 elephants were poached for their ivory.

You may have heard about the National Geographic story -Warlords of Ivory- tracing the ivory trade to terrorism. Investigative journalist Bryan Christy commissioned taxidermist George Dante to make a fake tusk, complete with GPS device.

Christy tracked the tusk from the Congo’s Garamba National Park to Sudan where ivory is often traded for weapons and medicine. Former members of one terrorist group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, told Christy how they have carried tusks over 600 miles through the jungle. Al Shabab is also tied to the ivory trade.

The zoo's Stoops says, “I think 40-percent they have estimated of their actual funding that they have where their terrorism is provided by the poaching.”

Much of the market for ivory is in China which announced recently it will phase out production and the sale of ivory products.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.