The family of elephants, consisting of 11 adults and a young calf, were gunned down in a shower of bullets in a remote corner of Kenya’s largest wildlife reserve before having their tusks removed. This attack is the most recent in a string of elephant killings in Kenya which has seen the number of animals poached for their ivory double in less than two years, from 178 in 2010 to an estimated 360 in 2012.
This sudden surge in the slaughter of African elephants has been widely attributed to the rising demand for ivory in China and other Asian countries, where ivory trinkets are often viewed as a marker of wealth. While foot, vehicle and air patrols have all been deployed to catch the perpetrators of this latest attack, it is feared that the well-armed poachers may have already escaped with their haul of ivory, which could fetch up to £175,000 on the Asian market.
“Every possible resource is being deployed to track down the criminals who carried out this heinous act,” said Paul Udoto, spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service. “We’ve not seen such an incident in living memory, it’s the worst single loss that we have on record. It’s unimaginable.”
The ivory trade
“However much ivory is provided to the market, the appetite in Asian countries is insatiable and the criminals know that, and they will go to great lengths to find the tusks,” said Mr Udoto. “Africa has half a million elephants left, all together they would not be enough to satisfy the demand that has arisen.”
The next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international body regulating the trade in threatened wildlife, is to be held in Thailand in March, when several African countries will lobby for permission to sell stockpiled ivory and use the revenue raised to fund conservation projects. However, many conservationists argue that permission given by CITES for a large amount of South African, Namibian and Botswanan ivory to be sold to Japan in a one-off deal in 2006 was the root cause of a resurgence in the demand for ivory.
Africa’s majestic elephants are not the only species being targeted by poachers, with 633 rhinos also having been killed in South Africa last year alone. As a prized material for ornamental use and a valued ingredient in some traditional Asian medicines, a single rhino horn can fetch up to $12,000, which is a fortune in countries such as Kenya where much of the human population earns less than a dollar a day.
“The resurgence of poaching is a tragedy and one of the biggest reasons is that we’re now talking about our last herds,” said William Kimosop, chief warden at a reserve in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
In response to the continued increase in rhino poaching, Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya is employing new and inventive methods to protect its wildlife. Home to four of the world’s seven northern white rhinos, Ol Pejeta has worked hard to ensure the safety of its animals, and is now turning to technology in the fight against poachers.
In the past, each rhino has been assigned its own round-the-clock armed guard to protect it. However, the Conservancy will now be deploying commercial aerial drones – similar to those used by the military to identify terrorist targets – to track rhinos across the reserve and give rapid warning of any unwanted human encroachment in the area, day and night.
These high-tech guards have been specially adapted to deploy high resolution cameras, as well as infra-red thermal imaging for use in night operations, and it is expected that the drone could cover a 10,000 acre area in a single flight. These electric-powered drones will cover the reserve far more effectively than a team of staff on the ground, and will enable armed wardens to be dispatched quickly if an animal is at risk.
“It’s really difficult to fully track animals or poachers across such a huge area even with 160 rangers – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Rob Breare, who works on strategy and innovation for the Conservancy. “We believe that a drone will be a significant deterrent to poachers, but it will also enable us to quickly send a highly-trained response team to an identified location if it reveals a threat.”
Each drone, dubbed ‘Aerial Rangers’ by Conservancy staff, will cost $50,000 and have a wingspan of around 10 feet. Launched by a simple catapult, a drone will be able to fly over the reserve and stream live images back to base camp using an on-board GPS system to pinpoint exact locations. In future, the reserve plans to attach radio transmitters to each rhino, enabling the drone to identify and observe individual animals.
The Conservancy team has high hopes for these new flying guards, and is aiming to launch the first of several drones by March before expanding the fleet to neighbouring reserves. As well as being more efficient than a ground team, it is thought that the drones will be almost impossible for poachers to outwit.
“Not only will drones provide better surveillance of remote areas, but they will be difficult for poaching gangs to target,” said Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta. “Eventually we feel that drones will assist conservationists to provide the sophisticated range of deterrents needed to protect wildlife not just across Africa but in many other parts of the world.”
Learn more about efforts to monitor wildlife trade at TRAFFIC.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author