WASHINGTON—Poaching and international trafficking of elephant ivory and rhino horns has worsen in the last couple of years, and now the future of elephant and rhino populations in central Africa are in jeopardy. The prices and demand for these animal parts are soaring in Asia.
Wildlife conservationists are fighting back, pilot-testing new technologies, such as drones and DNA analysis, and seeking improved ranger training.
The battle between the poachers and the conservationists may be won or lost on whoever has the superior technology. Programs that come to the aid of the beleaguered rangers also show promise in helping to reverse the trend.
“We see a crisis unfolding before our eyes, an unprecedented rate [of poaching] we haven’t seen for close to a decade,” said Crawford Allan, World Wildlife Fund senior director, and author of several publications on wildlife trafficking, species conservation, and wildlife enforcement.
Allan said technology is more important now than ever in meeting the crisis. “The technology that is currently available is not affordable or transferable for protecting elephants and rhinos for conservation purposes,” Allan said Oct. 31 at a news conference at the National Press Club.
The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, WWF, and African Parks sponsored this news conference and a workshop for experts from government, NGOs and technology firms. The three organizations have joined together in a partnership to combat wildlife trafficking in Africa.
Allan said that protecting wildlife, such as elephants and rhinoceroses, has changed dramatically, with increasing demand from Asia, and “poachers who own the night,” rangers “underequipped and under resourced,” with the “frightening job to guard wildlife” against well-armed opponents, militias and terrorists.
Poachers have become more sophisticated, hiring soldiers, sometimes “armed with AK-47s, silencers and night vision goggles,” and using helicopters, stated David Kohn in TERP, Fall 2013 edition. Park rangers are outgunned.
The estimated value of the illegal wildlife trade is between $8 billion and $10 billion per year. It’s the fourth largest transnational crime, just behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking, said Dr. Richard W. Carroll from the WWF.
“With tiger bone, rhino horn, and elephant ivory now worth more than their weight in gold, one rhino horn alone is worth more than $450,000, and trade in animal parts has eclipsed blood diamonds,” Carroll said.
“It is not a conservation challenge that conservation groups can deal with any longer. We need partners,” Allan said.
“The poachers are stepping up their game and so must we,” he said. The rate at which elephants are killed means that in 10 years, forest elephants will go extinct. To “think of Central Africa without elephants—is abhorrent,” Allan said.
The forum discussed new technologies that show the most promise in protecting wildlife, particularly elephants and rhinos. The coalition will look at various anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring technologies and evaluate them for their applicability to the task of protecting wildlife.
“Wildlife conservation in Africa—a region of the world where I have a lot of involvement—is a passion of mine,” said former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who founded the Richardson Center.
Richardson served as UN ambassador in the Clinton administration and is best known for his diplomatic successes in North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Burma, Congo, and Colombia. His negotiating skills and international contacts may serve the coalition well for gaining the cooperation of African heads of state on the use of drones and training programs.
Richardson said he will meet with at least four African leaders.
Technologies are emerging or adapted that can make a difference. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and infrared sensors can find poachers and monitor wildlife.
“The commercial military grade UAVs are prohibitively expensive,” said Dinerstein. Amateur UAVs are expensive, have short flight times, and are not durable.
Dinerstein said they need to develop a drone that is affordable, durable, and easy to maintain.
According to Dr. Thomas Snitch, from the Institute of Advanced Computer Studies, deploying the UAVs requires modeling and testing. He said, “Africa is too big to randomly launch UAVS.” In order to narrow the areas monitored, mathematical modeling is necessary.
The Richardson Center, in partnership with African Parks, launched a three-week ranger training program in the Congo in August 2012 that provides another way for former poachers to make a living.
The program had 56 applicants who were former poachers. Of those, 28 were accepted, and later 15 more entered the program. In all, 43 former poachers became eco-guards or eco-monitors at Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Applicants had to make written statements of their crimes and hand over illegal weapons.
The testimonies of former poachers were instrumental in bringing to justice a regional poaching kingpin, who was known for bribing officials. The man provided poachers firearms and ammunition in exchange for ivory, according to the Richardson Center. In a milieu where poaching has been considered a minor offense, the man received a five year sentence, which is the highest penalty in Congo for poaching.
At the press conference, Nicole Mollo, philanthropy and operation director of African Parks, announced that the Richardson Center was funding a permanent ranger school in the Odzala-Kokoua National Park.
The statistics tell an alarming story.
Carroll said over 30,000 elephants were killed in 2012—96 a day. In the last decade, 62 percent of Africa’s forest elephants in the Congo basin have been killed, he said.
“To see a poached elephant on the ground with its tusks cut out with an ax leaves quite a lasting impression,” said Carroll, who said he has seen many scenes like this. He has been involved in Africa work on conservation since 1976.
“China is the major market for ivory,” Carroll said. The more than one million Chinese businessmen and workers in Africa facilitate the trade.
Rhino poaching increased 30-fold from 2007-2011, he said. In South Africa, 762 rhinos have been killed this year, according to Richardson Center, citing TRAFFIC, which monitors wildlife trade. This number compares to about 13 in 2007, according to WWI. Vietnam and China are the main recipients of the horn, which is ground into powder. Consumers believe it can cure cancer, but it actually has no medicinal value.
“More large-scale ivory seizure took place in 2011 than any other year in the past two decades, Carroll said. Customs officials seized a record level of 24 tons of illegal ivory—a 10-fold increase over the previous year, Carroll said.
There is strong evidence that the ivory trade plays an important role in financing insurgent and terrorist groups, particularly Lord’s Resistance Army, Sudanese Janjaweed militia, and al-Shabab.
“Tiger poaching is so heavy, for the first time more tigers exist in captivity than in the wild,” said Dr. Eric Dinerstein, from WWF.
WWF states that it “dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth.”
African Parks states it is responsible for the “rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks, in partnership with governments and local communities.” Currently, African Parks manages parks in Chad, Congo, DRC, Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia.
The Richardson Center for Global Engagement states that it “was established by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to promote international peace and dialogue.”