Conservationists in the UK have created a system that uses GPS tags, heart rate monitors, and embedded cameras to deter poachers from slaughtering rhinos. The Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device (RAPID) was developed by Protect, a British nonprofit focused on conservation and animal welfare. The device is already being tested in South Africa, where rhino populations are under threat from poachers seeking their valuable horns.
The system, which was spearheaded by biologist Paul O'Donoghue, relies on heart rate monitors embedded under the skin of rhinos. If the animal's heart rate suddenly elevates or plummets, RAPID will send an alert to operators at a control center, who can then remotely activate a tiny camera implanted into the rhino's horn. A leather collar around the animal's neck also tracks its GPS coordinates, allowing park authorities to quickly deploy anti-poaching forces if the live camera footage suggests that it's being attacked. The hope is that once the system is widely deployed, poachers will learn to avoid any rhino wearing the distinctive GPS collar.
"It acts as a deterrent so that poachers realize that any animal that’s got one of these collars or units attached to it is basically off the list," says Steve Piper, a director at Protect. "There's no point in attacking it, there’s no point in killing it, because you're never going to get away with the valuable parts of the animal."
Rhino poaching has risen sharply in recent years, particularly in South Africa, home to the largest rhinoceros population in the world. More than 1,200 were killed in South Africa last year, according to government figures, equating to one rhino every eight hours. Criminal syndicates target the animal for its horn, which commands high prices in Asia for its perceived medicinal benefits.
Some governments have de-horned rhinos to deter poachers, though that requires constant monitoring, and it hasn't always proven effective. More recently, conservationists have begun using drones and microchip implants to enhance surveillance of threatened populations.
The missing link?
RAPID provides a "missing link," Piper says, because it allows authorities at national parks and reserves to instantly pinpoint the location of a rhino under threat. The system's three components communicate wirelessly, and the heart monitor's battery would only have to be replaced a few times over the course of a rhino's lifetime. The embedded camera also poses no risk to the rhino's health, and can be implanted painlessly.
"You're looking at a fraction of a second from a rhino getting stressed or upset to the alarm being raised," Piper says. "So there’s really no opportunity for poachers to cut off [the horn]."
Protect will deploy more prototype systems over the coming months, in the hopes of launching it more widely by late 2016. In the meantime, it will explore ways to explore alternative ways to power the heart monitor battery, including solar and kinetic energy. The organization says RAPID could also be adapted to other threatened species such as elephants, lions, or even whales. A version for tigers, Piper says, is already in development.
Update July 21st 8:30AM ET: A previous version of this piece stated that rhino horns are made of ivory. That was incorrect. We've updated the piece to reflect the error.