Technologies That May Save Rhinos from Poachers

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The illegal wildlife trade, which brings in an estimated $19 billion annually worldwide, has claimed the lives of almost 6000 African rhinos since 2008, with 1175 of those killed just within South Africa, figures which have accelerated each year as demand for the horns increases steadily. Only about 5000 black rhinos, and just three northern white rhinos, which have been unable to reproduce, remain worldwide.

For poachers, killing rhinos makes good financial sense: a rhino horn in Asia was worth $60-100K per kilogram in 2013. Nevertheless, scientists and conservationists have been fighting back, using technology in creative ways to help save these beautiful creatures from having their horns hacked off and being left for dead.

A mechanical engineer thought up the idea to create robotic rhino babies, which would stay close to real rhino herds and alert authorities when poachers approached. These robo-rhinos, called Rakamera, would replicate real rhino behavior so the herds learn to accept them. The robots would be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, with internal hydraulic and servomotors to make movement possible; plus, they would be fitted with infrared sensors and cameras to track humans coming close to the herd.

Other techniques that have been implemented to stop poachers include implanting mini cameras or micro-chips into the horns, allowing officials to more easily trace and pursue poaching operations. Recently, San Francisco-based biotech startup Pembient came up with a unique and intriguing idea: they were able to create synthetic rhino horns, using a combination of rhino DNA and keratin, the protein the horns, as well as our hair and nails, are made of. These ingredients form a dry powder that is fed into 3D printers and emerges as a horn indistinguishable from the real thing. The company has even partnered with a Chinese brewery to create a beer with this synthetic powder inside, replacing other beers with real horn purported to cure hangovers. However, Pembient has faced criticism from conservation NGOs, who have long been working to reduce demand for the horns in the first place, educating the public about the dire impacts of horn poaching and the lack of evidence for supposed medicinal benefits of consuming the horn. These groups worry that flooding the market with cheap synthetic horns may actually have the unintended effect of increasing the general public’s desire for rhino horns, spurring on more poachers than before.

Until the demand for rhino horns, which are believed to have healing properties, and are now frequently used as a status symbol, decreases, we must continue to track and fight poachers through technologies which will hopefully only expand and improve in years to come.

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Sources: Gallego, Jelor. “The Newest Anti-Poaching Technique? Robotic Rhinos.” Futurism. 5 December 2016.

Ankrom, Darren. “Synthetic Rhino Horn Made with a 3D Printer is the Latest Tool to Fight Poaching.” Vice. 24 June 2015.

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All Legal Ivory Trading from Largest Market to End This Year

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Elephant populations everywhere are in grave danger, with species ranging in classification from vulnerable to critically endangered. The biggest causes of their fragility are habitat encroachment and poaching, which claimed 20,000 elephants in 2015, more than were born that year. Interestingly, these two causes may intertwined: in the minds of many locals whose livelihood depends on cultivating the land, habitat encroachment seems to necessitate killing or removing the elephants who live there, which in turn provides the perfect opportunity for poachers to swoop in and take the ivory that is in such high demand around the world. The UN Environment Programme found that over 63% of elephant rangelands will be occupied by humans by 2050.

Though an international ban on the once-legal ivory trade passed successfully throughout the ‘80s, political corruption and an illegal crime ring filled the void: in 2011, poaching caused 75% of elephant deaths worldwide. The ban had a fatal loophole, allowing ivory obtained prior to the ban to be sold, allowing poachers to claim the ivory was much older than it actually was.

Recently, China took great strides in cutting back on this dangerous and swiftly-accelerating industry, creating a plan to ban all trade by the end of 2017. “It’s a game changer and could be the pivotal turning point that brings elephants back from the brink of extinction,” said Elly Pepper at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Conservationists are hopeful that other countries will take note and implement their own measures to counteract this deadly trade, allowing elephant populations to recover before they face critically low numbers.

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Source: Caughill, Patrick. “The Biggest Ivory Market in the World will End All Legal Trading in 2017.” Futurism. 4 January 2017.

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What Drones Have to Learn from Ancient Animal Flight Patterns

In an interesting case of art (or in this case, robotics) imitating life, scientists have revealed the role of real-life animal flight adaptations in helping teams develop and hone drones. On December 15, journal Interface Focus published 18 studies about airborne drones and the animals used as inspiration in shaping their flight patterns. David Lentink, the issue’s editor, also a Stanford University mechanical engineering assistant professor, says the goal of the publications is “to inspire development of new aerial robots and to show the current status of animal flight studies.”

The new studies reveal that, despite mankind’s long and complex history of crafting flying machines, we still have much to learn from examining the elegant techniques and mechanisms that have enabled birds, bats, and insects to safely and successfully take flight, stay aloft, and land for millions of years. Through careful study of naturally-occurring adaptations and processes, humans have found solutions for a vast array of problems, a process known as biomimetics or biomimicry, which has spawned inventions both well-known (Velcro, inspired by plant burrs stuck on a dog’s fur) and obscure but still practical (Mirasol, a full-color e-reader display based on how light gleams off butterfly wings).

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Though drones already seem to be fully functioning and ubiquitous, Lentink says that there is still much room to improve how easily and gracefully they fly, and that the 10,000 bird, 4000 bat, and 1 million bug species currently in existence can provide researchers with invaluable resources and insights into all sorts of flying techniques, from navigating turbulent skies to flying without a sound. Says Lentink: “Most people think that since we know how to design airplanes, we know all there is to know about flight,” but he argues that after successfully creating planes and rockets, we stopped studying flying animals as closely as we had, losing out on many potentially inspiring and innovative discoveries. However, he notes the current high demand for easily maneuverable and multi-talented flying robots, from corporations, individuals, and governments alike, has ignited a scientific “renaissance” and has opened new investigations into the many mysteries of animal aerodynamics.

One scientific research team focused on the owl’s ability to glide through the air in complete silence. The team explored wing adaptations that would potentially suppress noise, and concluded that owls’ large wing size, as well as the specific shape, texture, and feather-fringed edges of their wings, work together to muffle sound as owls swoop and soar through the sky. A second group studied how frigate birds, seabirds which fly for days without stopping, sleep “on the wing,”  capturing the birds’ in-flight brain activity for the first time ever and finding that they are able to take “micro naps” to rest both brain hemispheres concurrently. Other scientists discovered that fruit flies with broken wings can continue to fly by intuitively adjusting their wing and body motions to compensate for up to half a missing wing.

Several of the other newly-released studies detailed the techniques by which new robots can plunge into deep water from mid-air, stay aloft through strong winds, or bend their wings to better control their flight, all of which were designed with the help of research into animal flights patterns.

Lentink concludes that drones still have a way to go, but that biomimicry will continue to play an important role in shaping their design and skill. “They need to become more silent,” he notes. “They need to be more efficient, and they need to fly longer. There’s a lot of engineering that still needs to happen. The fact that the first steps are being made right now is really exciting and shows that there is a great future in this.”
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Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Sources: Lewis, Tanya. “Biomimicry: 7 Clever Technologies Inspired by Nature.” Live Science. 22 APril 2013.

Weisberger, Mindy. “New Flying Robots Take Cues From Airborne Animals.” Live Science. 16 December 2016.

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A Year in Review: Seven Stories that Highlight Hope for Conservation in 2016

Channel Islands fox rebound

The Channel Islands, eight islands off the coast of Southern California, house more of their adorable cat-size foxes (found nowhere else on earth) than ever in recent history. Thanks to conservation efforts including captive breeding of the foxes and relocation of predatory eagles, the population was recently removed from the endangered species list.

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Photo source: Don DeBold

Chernobyl wildlife boom

Though Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded over 30 years ago, it has left behind a wasteland that most scientists thought would remain barren for years to come. However, in 2014 University of Georgia researchers left dozens of cameras in a heavily forested area of Chernobyl’s 1600-square-mile Exclusion Zone and saw that boars, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs and many more species had reclaimed the land as their own. “It’s basically an incredibly large sanctuary” for animals, said one researcher of the follow-up study and accompanying photos which were published this year.

Robotic animals used to trick poachers

US authorities have come up with an unexpected but highly successful method to catch poachers: placing remote-controlled robotic animals like deer, bear, and moose in illegal hunting hubs and apprehending those foolhardy enough to shoot at them.

Peanut butter and drones provide a creative way to help adorable ferrets

Native to the US, beautiful black-footed ferrets currently hold the spot of North America’s most endangered species, due in large part to a plague killing prairie dogs, their main source of food. This year the federal government began testing a unique and tasty solution that could drive the ferrets’ population to healthy numbers: using drones to drop peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with plague vaccine on unsuspecting prairie dogs (about 60-90% of prairie dogs fell for the trick in recent tests), helping their populations recover enough to restore a balanced ecosystem to the American grasslands where the dogs and ferrets reside.

Full-time Hedgehog Officer for British Town

Officials in Ipswich, a village on the eastern coast of the UK, have recently noted declines in typically high hedgehog populations, so a local wildlife organization created the post of “Hedgehog Officer”, tasking the British woman who beat around 150 applicants with conserving this adorable local creature.

Jaguars settling in Arizona

Jaguars claimed much of the western US as their own before being completely hunted to death, but 2016 gave two positive signs that some of the creatures may have migrated from northern Mexico into the Arizona desert. A few months following the appearance of a gorgeous male, caught on camera and nicknamed El Jefe, a second male cat was photographed prowling around an Arizona army installation. Though Arizona wildlife officials dampened some excitement with the revelation that the closest breeding population is 130 miles south, the presence of these cats brings hope that more may eventually find their way to their old stomping grounds in the US.

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Strong protections for some of world’s most endangered animals

The 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) concluded by creating tough new regulations against killing and trading endangered animals currently vulnerable to poachers, including African gray parrots, pangolins, and manta rays.

Post by Shannon Cuthbert

Source: Brulliard, Karin. “Nine great news stories about animals in 2016.” The Washington Post. 30 December 2016.

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