The Missing Horn: Poaching and Conservation Technology

It was before sunrise as we pulled up to the Okaukuejo gate of Etosha National Park. Two large gateways stood before us with a grand thatched roof overhead shading the black letters reading Etosha. Our entrance into the park involved a series of paperwork, car registration and an entrance fee. Guards waved us in with a smile and wished us luck on our game drive for the day. However, exiting the park took on a different tone. After a day spent in the company of lions, elephants and giraffes (oh my), we took our spot in line behind the row of cars also exiting the park at sunset. Guards approached and requested to search our refrigerator and dogs made their way around the cars. With each car that inched forward, every vehicle was questioned, sniffed and sent on its way. No poachers today.

It was early morning once more. The brisk morning breeze reminded us we were most definitely in winter. The open safari jeep didn’t help. On our drive into Chobe National Park, our safari guide described the problems with keeping poachers out of the unfenced park. The abundance of elephants in the reserve attracted ivory poachers. In 2016-17 alone, 62 elephants were killed and 109 tusks were trafficked (Dinale, 2018). Without fences and with access via the nearby river, the park has no direct barrier to keep out poachers. However, Chobe does not take poaching lightly. As our guide shared, the anti-poaching unit deployed in the park is made up of the country’s military forces, equipped with night vision, helicopters, military-grade weapons and supplies. Botswana continues to allow a shoot-to-kill policy in regards to poachers as well. Here, the elephants come first.

Elephants in Chobe National Park

It was late afternoon when we pulled into our campsite for the night. WiFi sent our phones abuzz. With New York Times updates flooding in, my phone was illuminated with the headline “Lions Eat Men Suspected of Poaching Rhinos.” Some Saw ‘Karma.’” Normally, when tourists or locals are mauled by a lion, the animal is immediately euthanized to avoid future attacks. However, when the three victims were found in a South African game reserve, the owner commented, “The lions are our watchers and guardians and [the poachers] picked the wrong pride and became a meal” (Greef, 2018). Little sympathy was given to the poachers and this pride remains alive.

Rhino with trimmed horn (Rebel PR)

Poaching is universally accepted as a tragedy, a great loss of animal life and illegal action in all of Southern Africa. And yet, it is increasing. Rhino poaching has reached disastrous, heart-wrenching numbers. In 2008, South Africa reported 13 rhinos being lost to poaching. A year later, it was 83. In 2015, it was 1,342. In 1900, there were 500,000 rhinos worldwide; now there are less than 30,000 and four out of the five remaining African species are listed as critically endangered (Christy, 2017). Through the demand for rhino horn, rhinos have become nothing more than the 90-150 cm chunk of keratin that lays at the edge of their snout. They are commodified, hacked and then killed.

Rhino horn now fetches anywhere from $65,000-$100,000 per kg in countries such as Vietnam or China, which value the dense keratin for medicinal purposes (Hsu, 2017). The market has now driven the value of rhino horn higher than the value of gold. And on top of this, now part of the market is legal.

Last year, South Africa reversed the 2009 legislation that placed a moratorium on the sale of rhino horn. Domestic rhino horn trade is now legal in the country, allowing rhino ranchers to farm rhino horn. As ranchers don’t have to injure rhinos to profit from their horn, many argue that the legalization of trade will flood the market, leading to a reduction in poaching. Others argue that domestic trade only further increases the demand for rhino horn. Concern surrounding the legalization involves both and regulation and perception. Legalization normalizes the selling of rhino horns, encouraging consumers; it signals the rhino market is back up and running. A legal system of rhino trading will further allow sellers the opportunity to launder rhino horns. With little demand in South Africa, the majority of horn sales is made on the black market, smuggling horns to Asia. Yet, South Africa’s Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, counters such concerns commenting, “Whilst we are studying the implications of the order handed down by the Constitutional Court, it should be noted that the court’s decision should not be construed to mean that the domestic trade in rhino horn may take place in an unregulated fashion” (Daley, 2017). As Kruger chief ranger, Xolani Funda commented, “For those on the front line, protecting rhinos is no longer a conservation challenge; it’s a war.”

However, for a daily dose of optimism, the rising loss of such gentle giants has sparked a new form of innovation—conservation technology. Conservation tech isn’t an entirely new concept. In fact, Duke has its very own group of students called Duke Conservation Technology (DCT) working to harness the power of technology to combat environmental dilemmas. Internationally, various methods have been implemented to track rhino populations, spot potential poachers, monitor individual species or render horns invaluable. Here are a few of the innovative ideas being tested today:

Rhino horn with camera (Krantz, 2015).
  • The Rhino Rescue Project is currently working on an anti-parasitic drug and dye, which is injected into the horn. The chemicals are harmless to the rhinos, but serve to disfigure the horn and cause nausea in people, thus rendering the horn useless when ground up for medicine (Krantz, 2015).
  • Other groups are experimenting with an embedded cameras and heart-rate monitors placed within the horn of rhinos. The tech serves as an alarm, sent with GPS coordinates to anti-poaching units to dispatch rangers in the event of poaching and spiked heart rates (Krantz, 2015).
  • The sheer immensity of reserves makes security challenging to say the least. A company called Axis has developed a perimeter defender, utilizing thermal cameras in conjunction with video analytics to detect poachers prior to entry into reserves (Johansson, 2017).
  • The World Wildlife Fund has launched the Wildlife Crime Technology Project targeted to protect critically vulnerable species using forward-looking infrared cameras (MacDougall, 2017).
  • A partnership called Connected Conservation uses thermal cameras, sensors and scanners, with the prototype being installed in a game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park. The system works by using cameras to monitor the perimeter of the reserve, a network to notify park rangers of intruders, scanners to record fingerprints and vehicle registration, and a communication system to coordinate anti-poaching units (Neme, 2018).
  • With funding from Google, the Malawi Department of National Parks have partnered with UAV & Drone Solutions to monitor game reserves and deter poachers with spotlights. Technology is still being developed to “ping” poacher sitings through the use of machine learning and thermal cameras. Companies such as Neurala are using artificial intelligence to assist human analysts by automatically sifting through hours of video taken by drones in real time (Lazzaro, 2017).

Innovation, creativity, and ingenuity are igniting as the need for rhino protection only continues to grow. Nowadays, many alternative efforts are being proposed to alter the market of horn sales, use technology to overcome illegal trade, and raise awareness about the critical status of the species. The landscape of species conservation is changing. And as we race extinction, efforts are beginning to work.

In the case of Connected Conservation, since the technology has been put into place in November 2015, “rhino poaching incidents has been reduced by 96%. In 2017, no rhino in the reserve were poached” (DefenceWeb, 2018). The Rhino Rescue Project has seen a dramatic reduction in poaching in the test population, with only seven animals lost over a five-year period. Ultimately, poaching will continue unless the drivers of demand decrease. However, with the progress in conservation technology, we may just be able to put a stop to the missing horn.

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Charlton, R. W., Schneider, J. L., & Beichner, D. M. (n.d.). Death and Destruction: Insight Into the Rhino Poaching Epidemic in South Africa (Unpublished master’s thesis).
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