Fighting Poaching with Science

by Sonny Thakur, Athens Science Café

One of the more direct and disturbing ways that humans are causing environmental damage is poaching, or illegally hunting wild animals for commercial reasons. The two most highly valued items that are obtained from poaching are rhinoceros horns and ivory from elephant tusks. The worst part about it is that often, the colossal creature is slaughtered for only a miniscule part of their body. Rhino populations are suffering because of the high demand for their horns. South Africa has one of the largest populations of rhinos, where 1,215 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2014 (that’s one every eight hours).

All five species of rhinos are endangered. The major force driving this issue is the illegal trade of rhino horns. Vietnam is the biggest market for this commodity, where rhinos were declared extinct in 2011. Many Vietnamese people believe that rhino horn can cure fever and other ailments, and recently it is also believed to be a cure for cancer.

However, science has a way to tackle this problem. Do you know about dye packs used to foil bank robbers?  A dye called Disperse Red 9 is used in a pack that can be handed to the robber with the money and is programmed to explode, thus catching the robber literally red-handed (this helps to both disorient and identify the robber). A similar dye is used by the people at Rhino Rescue Project to stop poachers. Rhino horn is made out of keratin, the same substance as your hair and nails. Thus, it can be injected with poisonous dye without inflicting pain on the rhino. The horn is also fitted with GPS tracking chips. The color (pink instead of red) makes it easy to catch on airport scanners if an attempt is made to export it in powdered form. Also, it is unusable as a medicine because it becomes poisonous. This seems like a very effective technology and will may prove to deter poachers from killing rhinos for their horns.

Unlike the rhino horn, the elephant’s tusk cannot be injected with poisonous dye because it is like human teeth and has nerve endings in it. The outlook for elephant populations seems  pretty grave too. Approximately 62% of African forest elephants were killed for their ivory between 2002 and 2011. In fact, in the span of three years (from 2010 to 2012), 100,000 elephants were killed for ivory in Africa. The biggest market for ivory is China, where its ornamental value is so high that it is called “white gold”. A good way to catch poachers would be to pinpoint where they are hunting. Sam Wasser of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington teamed up with INTERPOL and other agencies to use DNA tracking methods to locate hotspots for poachers. They collected genetic information from elephant feces, which is found close to the places that elephants live and is a harmless way of extracting data. Then, they collected genetic information from seized ivory goods. Matching these data gave them precise knowledge of trade patterns, telling them where the ivory was coming from and where it ended up.

Although we have made some progress, there are still other animals being poached and science can play a big role in protecting them. For example, gorillas are hunted for bushmeat and tigers for medicinal uses of their various body parts. Both these animals are endangered according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). Solutions still need to be found to end poaching all together and there is no better way to do it than a combination of law enforcement, public awareness, and of course, taking the help of science along the way.

About the Author

SonnySunishka “Sonny” Thakur is an undergraduate at the University of Georgia majoring in Genetics, currently just trying to make the most of her freshman year. She loves to read, dance, work with student organizations like First Book and World Ambassadors, and gets very excited about science.