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Rhinos With Spy Cams in Their Horns Will Catch Poachers in the Act

The internet of rhinos.
An endangered black rhino sports a proof of concept Protect RAPID device in its horn. Image: Protect

What could help protect endangered rhinos from even the most nefarious of poachers? A 24/7, real-time monitoring device that syncs rhinos up directly with the teams that want to protect them.

A spy cam-style monitoring device, called Protect RAPID (Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device) and invented by British scientist Paul O'Donoghue and animal conservation non-profit Protect, aims to protect endangered black rhino populations—and eventually other species—from poachers. The device combines a GPS satellite collar with a heart rate monitor and a video camera embedded in the rhino's horn, allowing monitoring teams to keep an eye on their charges remotely and step in when danger strikes.

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"This system triggers an alarm in the form of a GPS signal if the rhino's heart rate rises rapidly, or it stops. The signal goes to a control centre, where operators can access the video camera mounted on the horn remotely," Steve Piper, Protect's director, told me over the phone.

The video allows a portal to the rhino's environment and also helps prevent any false alarms by allowing the operators to verify if the rhino is in any real danger and react accordingly. "If there's any risk to the animal, the operator can raise the alarm with the poaching forces who can be there very quickly—either by helicopters or trucks," said Piper.

Paul O'Donoghue trials the proof of concept device in South Africa. Image: Protect

Over the last decades, severe poaching has led to a crash in rhino populations in South Africa, with 1,215 killed in 2014 alone. Currently, one problem is that anti-poaching teams find out about incidents too late, leading to low arrest and conviction rates at the scene of the crime.

The Protect RAPID device, which is backed by animal conservation non-profit Humane Society International, seeks to change all that and get to the source of the problem, with its real-time data tracking.

"This device acts as a deterrent as it alerts teams immediately. Even if poachers attack an animal, they won't be able to get away with any of its parts, as the anti-poaching teams can get there very quickly," said Piper.

The team has already held proof-of-concept trials in South Africa with various anti-poaching forces. They expect to roll out their device over the coming months. Next up, they're working on adapting the device for other endangered animals such as tigers, elephants, and even some birds of prey in the UK.

Piper explained that solar panels placed on top of the rhino collar could also allow the battery to last longer, meaning that the team would have to replace the Protect RAPID device every few years, as opposed to every few months.

"We're also interested in kinetic energy charging—so the devices charges as the animal moves around," said Piper.

"All this tech has existed for a long time, we've just put it together. […] We're just looking to fine-tune [device] so that it survives the rough and tumble that the rhinos put it through," he said.