Anne & Adam’s African Anti-poaching Adventure

The University of Gloucestershire Biosciences team has been running a field course to Mankwe Wildlife Reserve in South Africa since spring 2012. In the first three trips, we had some amazing sightings of white rhino on the reserve, with their horn giving the distinctive “rhino profile”.

Late in 2014 Mankwe got hit by rhino poachers and as a consequence of a single incursion one October night, 5 rhino died, including a female just weeks away from giving birth. Rhino poaching is now an everyday reality in South Africa and most years more than 1000 killed are for their horn. Indeed rhino horn, which is simply compressed matted hair, is now one of the most expensive substances on earth, worth more per gram than cocaine, heroin, gold or diamonds. For wildlife reserves and National Parks that support rhino, anti-poaching has become a major focus and a big drain on resources. Mankwe is no exception, spending >1.5 million rand per year on their protection.

In 2015 we published a paper that tested the capabilities of thermal imaging (TI) kit in detecting a “poacher” (actually Rik Rolfe!) in the African bush. That paper showed that low-cost TI (at the time costing around £2000) was very effective in locating human subjects and since that paper we have been instrumental in encouraging the uptake of TI in reserves. This has been very effective but the large size and cost even of the entry-level units remained a bit of a stumbling block for wider uptake. Last year, however, FLiR launched the C2 camera at ~£400 and the size of a mobile phone – suddenly TI has become truly pocket-sized and affordable…

At the end October 2018, we went to South Africa to field test the C2, to optimise the settings, and to train rangers across South Africa in its use. Starting at Mankwe, we ran a training workshop for a national organisation involved in rhino anti-poaching. This group spends every full moon, and plenty of other nights besides, patrolling reserves to protect rhino and the C2 proved to be a big hit with them. We also trained up an anti-poaching unit – complete with anti-poaching canines – to use and optimise the kit and interpret the images as well as training resident staff to training others. With 400+ people a year from across the world going through the reserve, our training should result in plenty of TI-enabled rangers and conservationists. While we were there we were able to visit other reserves and national parks to talk about our research and to spread the word on the effectiveness of low-cost TI. One such reserve is home to 100+ white rhino and black rhino and, with 120km of perimeter to patrol, they face a massive challenge in keeping those rhino safe. Once again, the professional researchers, rangers and security staff involved in anti-poaching were more than impressed with the performance of thermal imaging and the way it could be utilised on the ground.

It wasn’t all TI and rhinos of course – we managed to squeeze in some excellent views of lions, elephants and cheetahs along the way…and by the time we were back at the airport we had a pretty impressive bird list too (over 100 species, not that we counted…!). What stayed with us most, though, was the huge efforts and sacrifices that so many dedicated rangers, anti-poaching patrollers, and security staff make to protect rhino as a keystone species. It was truly humbling and we sincerely hope that uptake of TI and our training will help with the war against poaching.

Anne Goodenough and Adam Hart

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