Bill Richardson kicks off high-tech campaign to fight poaching

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Friday, November 1, 2013

Upper hand in many African countries: They are armed, they have wealthy backers, and they can slip into parks with vast land and little law enforcement.

But wildlife advocates imagine a future where park rangers could use drones to track herds, algorithms to predict poacher behavior and darts to embed GPS tracking systems in elephants and rhinos.

The problem is cost and efficiency. But former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) said that technology is a “tipping point” where a little money can go a long way toward stopping a growing illegal wildlife trade that funnels as much as $19 billion a year to international crime syndicates.

To that end, Richardson announced yesterday that his 2-year-old nonprofit — the Richardson Center for Global Engagement — is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to find the best way to integrate technology into wildlife protection.

The center also will help fund a “poacher to protector” training school in the Republic of the Congo and lobby African leaders to set aside seized assets for anti-poaching efforts.

“We know that reaching and protecting the most remote locations is no easy task,” Richardson said. “It takes applying the most advanced, real-time surveillance technology. It takes trained and committed rangers and guards. It takes an infrastructure that sustains the effort over the long haul. And it takes international cooperation and strategic planning.”

Over the past few years, the rate of slaughtered elephants and rhinos has spiked in several African parks, thanks to a growing market for ivory. One rhino horn can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars. In South Africa, more than 800 rhinos have been killed so far this year.

Some of that illegal ivory comes through the United States, prompting the Obama administration to take notice. Earlier this year, Obama launched an effort to better coordinate the U.S. response to illegal trafficking in wildlife parts, complete with a $10 million pledge to help train those who fight poaching in Africa (Greenwire, July 1).

But training only goes so far. Yesterday, researchers, wildlife advocates and agency officials gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the technological tools that park rangers can use to gain the upper hand.

The forum comes a year after WWF received a $5 million grant from Google’s Global Impact Awards to test advancements by easily replicable technologies to combat poaching.

Thomas Snitch, a University of Maryland professor, touted his solution: algorithms paired with an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.

On a recent trip to Africa, Snitch tried out his theory with the 12-pound Falcon, a drone that costs less than $25,000 — an attainable price tag for African parks. By entering a variety of data — where rhinos usually gather, the location of their favorite plants, ranger positions — Snitch strategically launched the drone in specific areas of a 38-square-mile park.

That technique allows him to estimate with a 90 percent likelihood where a rhino herd will be, or where a poacher will potentially strike, he said. And the use of an “eye in the sky” can have a similar psychological effect as it does in war.

“Terrorists are to poachers as rhinos are to U.S. troops,” Snitch said.

Indeed, a theme of yesterday’s forum was how technology could be repurposed for combating wildlife trafficking. Nokia, for example, has developed a GPS animal tracker that costs less than $300; attaching a few to elephants could be less expensive than other options. DNA analysis, meanwhile, can tell law enforcement whether ivory sold in China came from a sanctuary in Africa — and can possibly pinpoint which herds poachers are targeting.

Innovation will be key in the next few years to ensure rhino and elephant populations aren’t decimated, said Crawford Allan, senior director of WWF’s TRAFFIC program.

The level and rate of poaching, he said, have taken a “dramatic turn for the worse.”

“It isn’t new, but the challenge, the levels, the scale, the ferocity — it really is a different game,” he said, later adding: “The poachers are stepping up their game, and so must we.”

At yesterday’s news conference, Richardson exuded excitement over his foundation’s new direction. As a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, he hopes to use his diplomatic experience to bring together African leaders in the fight against wildlife trafficking.

At one point, the news conference became more of a collaborative session, with Richardson asking the audience how the United States should approach China, where a strong market for rhino ivory has sprung up thanks to the unproved belief that it can cure cancer when ground into powder.

Though the Richardson Center is small, Richardson asserts it can focus its efforts on strategic issues to help change the game. The poacher-to-protector school, for example, will be up within six months, ready to welcome former poachers who hand in their guns and are willing to take weeks of strenuous training.

“I’ve always had a passion for wildlife,” he said, adding that the center will focus on “where we can make a difference.”