Nature's Secrets

Cutting-edge technology helps save rhinos in India

CORRESPONDENTNovember 7, 2011 

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Mary Oliver, poet

The North Carolina Museum of Natural History's new Nature Research Center, opening spring 2012 in Raleigh, will employ cutting-edge technologies to convey scientific discoveries to students, policy-makers and citizens.

Using remote cameras in distant field sites such as forest canopies, the NRC will share discoveries around the planet with audiences and classrooms throughout North Carolina and beyond. These technologies educate people via new programs about how science works. They are already providing solutions to conservation challenges.

In remote northeastern India, intel sleuths have been deployed to eradicate rhino poaching. Kaziranga National Park is in Assam province, not far from Bangladesh; it is home to more than two-thirds of the world's one-horned rhinos. During the past decade alone, 66 rhinos were killed by poachers. At that rate, the world's remaining 2,850 one-horned rhinos (of which India is home to 2,390) will disappear by 2050.

Park rangers find it impossible to monitor the open borders of the park, where poachers use rifles with silencers to kill rhinos, cut off their horns and sell the horns in illegal-trade rings. (This raises another question for Indian officials: Where are poachers obtaining these firearms?)

But now the rangers have one foolproof solution: camera traps that photograph and identify poachers at work. These devices are already used by biologists to monitor animals in the field and by the military. Triggered by motion, the device clicks a photograph when something walks in front of the lens. In the forest canopy, camera traps have provided evidence of pollinators, observations of eagle nests and migratory observations. On the forest floor, camera traps survey the populations of cryptic but endangered species such as tigers and leopards for conservation purposes.

Now, rhino poachers in India can be identified by remote camera traps, and 112 poachers were apprehended in Kaziranga alone between 2006 and 2010 using these new technologies. India means business - no more rhino poaching!

But saving rhinos requires more than extraordinary diligence and cunning by the Indian government; it also needs international partnership with neighboring countries including China, Myanmar and Indonesia, where rhino horns are sold for large sums for traditional-medicine industries.

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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