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University professors provide technological solution for rhino conservation

Two University of Gloucestershire professors are helping to stop rhino poaching in parts of Africa.

Research by Anne Goodenough, professor of applied ecology, and Adam Hart, professor of science communication, on the use of simple, low-cost thermal imaging to protect rhino in Africa, is having a dramatic impact by reducing poaching risk and helping protect frontline rangers.

Between 2008 and 2018, more than 9,000 white rhinos and black rhinos were illegally killed across Africa for their horn, which is highly valued on the black market. Due to poaching, around five per cent of the population of these species is lost each year − driving them towards extinction.

Following initial research as part of a wider University of Gloucestershire team in 2015, the professors have instigated and led collaborations to develop low-cost thermal imaging approaches for anti-poaching operations, working with frontline rangers in three African countries. The approach is highly effective in detecting potential poachers. It has also made the role of the wildlife ranger less risky, as they can detect poachers from a safer distance.

As a direct result of the research, national parks, wildlife reserves, and national anti-poaching organisations in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, now use thermal imaging as an anti-poaching tool. The reserves using this approach cover a combined area of over 44,000 sq km (twice the size of Wales), which supports almost half of the global population of the critically-endangered black rhino.

Small reserves, which typically have fewer resources to devote to anti-poaching operations, have also benefited. In some cases they haven't lost a single rhino to poaching since the inclusion of low-cost thermal imaging in their anti-poaching response.

At the 2019 Green Gown sustainability awards, the project won the Research with Impact award. The awards are open to all higher education institutions and all disciplines. The judging panel highlighted the immediate and lasting impact of the research to reduce rhino poaching from key sites in Africa, the economic savings and the safeguarding of frontline rangers.

Professor Anne Goodenough said: "Rhino are poached for their horn by organised, international criminal syndicates supplying lucrative transboundary black markets. This not only results in brutal deaths of animals, as horn is literally hacked from their faces, but incursions by heavily-armed poachers pose considerable threat to frontline wildlife rangers."

Professor Adam Hart said: "Most rhino poaching occurs at night. We proved the effectiveness of low-cost thermal imaging units in comparison with conventional spotlighting or high-cost imaging units. Our research has provided crucial benefits to people combatting rhino poaching on the ground and we are humbled by the tireless efforts of those who protect wildlife at the sharp end."

The battle against rhino poaching is far from over. The closure of international borders throughout much of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in some of the lowest rhino poaching levels in Africa in recent years. But with borders now opening up again, rhino poaching rates are sadly already starting to rise, meaning initiatives like this have never been more important.

More information on the research can be found at 

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