In spite of anti-poaching measures such as patrolling park rangers and safe dehorning, poaching of the threatened white rhino and critically endangered black rhino has risen astronomically.
Rhino poaching has increased from 13 animals in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014 in South Africa alone, according to that country's Department of Environmental Affairs.
In a bid to help, a UK-based nonprofit called Protect has developed a system that uses a variety of technologies to track the behaviour of rhinos and immediately send an alert when poachers attack.
Called RAPID (Real-time Anti Poaching Intelligence Device), it combines a satellite GPS collar, heart-rate monitors embedded under the skin of the rhinos and a small camera placed in a hole drilled in the rhino's horn. If a drastic change occurs in the rhino's heart rate -- such as might occur if a rhino were shot -- the camera switches on and an alarm sounds. An anti-poaching team can be dispatched within minutes via truck or helicopter to try to catch the perpetrators, while footage captured may aid the prosecution.
Conservationist and geneticist Paul O'Donoghue of the University of Chester, who led the development of RAPID and who has worked with black rhinos for over 15 years, said this system renders poaching "pointless," adding that "you can't outrun a helicopter."
"Currently a rhino is butchered every six hours in Africa. The issues are many, but there's far too much money at stake to believe that legislation alone can make the difference. We had to find a way to protect these animals effectively in the field; the killing has to be stopped," he said in a statement.
The system has the backing of the Humane Society International, as well as conservationists in South Africa.
"We simply don't know where or when poachers might strike. To effectively patrol these vast landscapes requires an army, and still poachers could find a way through. They are well organised and equipped, and they will find gaps in almost any defence because the rewards are so great," said Dean Peinke, who specializes in mammal ecology for the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency.
"These devices tip the balance strongly in our favour. If we can identify poaching events as they happen, we can respond quickly and effectively to apprehend the poachers."
Protect has already completed proof-of-concept research on RAPID, publishing the results in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Next, the team will work to bring it into the field.
"We expect to have the first rhino prototypes out within months and are just beginning development on versions for tigers and elephants," said Steve Piper, a director at Protect. "We hope to have a fully functional control centre established early next year."