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.
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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