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New software will help protect black rhinos from poachers

Experts have developed new technology to track black rhinos in Namibia and protect the endangered animals from poachers. The interactive software uses advanced algorithms to analyze more than 100 measurements of rhino footprints.

Each footprint left behind by a rhinoceros is as distinctive as a human fingerprint. This means that the images analyzed with the Footprint Identification Technique (FIT) can be linked to specific individuals. 

The images will be digitally archived in a global database, providing conservationists with a new tool to monitor the movements of black rhinos across different protected areas. 

Study co-lead author Zoe Jewell is the co-creator of FIT and an adjunct associate professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

“If you find a match, you can identify the individual animal who left the mark and, by plotting the locations of all the other places that mark has been seen, track its movements without disturbing it or coming into close enough contact with it for there to be a risk of animal-to-human viral transmissions,” said Professor Jewell.

“It’s a cost-effective approach that not only protects the health of the rhino and the human, but also brings a centuries-old tracking skill into the 21st Century.”

About 90 percent of all remaining black rhinos live in Namibia, with an estimated population of 2,000 individuals. The rhinos are owned by the government and distributed onto private lands across the country.

In recent years, government efforts to strengthen security have significantly slowed the rate of poaching. However, between 30 and 50 black rhinos are still killed each year for their horns, which sell for more than $60,000 a kilogram on the Asian black market.

“You essentially have these animals with horns worth $100,000 or more that disappear from sight into the Namibian backcountry, making them an almost irresistible target for poachers. Authorities often don’t know a rhino that’s gone missing has been poached until they find its bones or carcass,” said Professor Jewell.

The FIT technology can be used to monitor rhinos in three different ways. This allows scientists, managers, guides, or anti-poaching patrols to use the software to best meet their individual needs and constraints, explained Professor Jewell.

The simplest FIT method compares the heel pattern on a digital image of the footprint to images that are already archived in the database to search for a match. This approach is well-suited to situations where a random footprint is found in the wild.

The FIT software can also be used to survey all footprints throughout a protected area and take measurements from each print to estimate the number of black rhinos that are present. This information is particularly useful for calculating resource needs, such as the number of patrol vehicles, to monitor the animals effectively.

The most advanced option tracks each individual rhino by matching its unique footprint using both FIT and heel-patterns. This method creates an interactive library that anti-poaching patrols can use to search for animals at the highest risk, including those known to frequent areas under threat from poachers.

“FIT is a distillation of the traditional ecological skills of the expert trackers who I have lived and worked with in Africa for many years,” said study co-author Professor Sky Alibhai. “Using FIT allows their skills to be used effectively in conservation. This can benefit whole communities.”

The researchers are currently working with Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism to train land managers, local guides, and anti-poaching agents on how to use the software.

The study is published in the journal PeerJ.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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