In the dead of night in the remote African bush, poachers stalking rhinos have the advantage of solitude, silence and darkness, on their side. At Kruger National Park, a 7,580-square-mile reserve in South Africa, poacher can enter the park quietly, shoot one of the country's estimated 21,000 rhinos, and steal away with its horn — all under the cover of darkness.
But now, new high-tech measures are throwing a wrench into poachers’ plans. The latest is a system of microphones placed high in treetops that can detect poachers’ gunshots from nearly two miles away, and send a notification to park rangers within 30 seconds. The microphones, called the “ShotSpotter” system, spit out the gunshots’ coordinates and, while the damage may already be done, they make it much easier for authorities to apprehend the poacher which makes a poacher less likely to shoot a rhino.
“When gunfire happens, a notification is immediately alert sent to our offices in California. Theresa Marcroft, senior vice president of marketing for Shotspotter, told The Dodo. “Then, a human confirms whether this sound is gunfire, or something like a tree branch breaking. If it’s a gunshot, we push that alert back to first responders immediately.”
The project is starting out small in an effort to determine whether it’ll be effective for stopping poachers. Already, the system has alerted officials to poachers. In one instance, rangers chased poachers away after a kill, but the poachers left hastily and left evidence on the scene. Officials were then able to prosecute them, thanks to these microphones.
Marcroft hopes that the system could be implemented on a larger scale in the future — right now it’s limited to a small number of places, like watering holes, where animals gather. In a park the size of Switzerland, there’s more than enough territory for the project to expand.
Tech now has a major stake in the conservation world, and not a moment too soon. 1,004 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2013, and the species is constantly under fire from poachers and wildlife traffickers who seek the animal’s horn for its use as a club drug or as traditional medicine.
Microphones are hardly the first tech innovation to help stop poachers. In Kenya wildlife officials working with the World Wildlife Fund to microchip every black rhino in the country in order to keep tabs on their movements and help rangers track them.
And drones are becoming ubiquitous in the world of conservation. Kenya is again leading the tech front — the country announced last April that it would be deploying drones in all 52 of its national parks and reserves. The drones provide 24-hour aerial surveillance to spot poachers from above — before they kill.
And in Nepal, Google Glass is being used to collect data on rhinos, cutting the work in half for researchers while taking valuable photos and video.
While technology offers the promise of tighter security for vulnerable wildlife, it also offers advantages to poachers. In one notable incident, the threat of “cyberpoaching” loomed in India for the endangered Bengal tiger. According to sources, poachers hacked into websites and emails seeking data recorded by a tiger’s GPS collar that would reveal the animal’s exact location. While the attempt was unsuccessful, it was just another example of how technology can be used to save wildlife — and to make it even more vulnerable.