by Erin Wright
International outrage over the slaughter of Cecil the lion, a beloved member of an endangered species lured away from the safety of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park earlier this month, has some observers calling for his killers’ heads and others questioning the propriety of so much grief for an animal while human suffering in Africa and elsewhere receives less news coverage.
Others, meanwhile, are demanding that the spotlight be placed on poaching, which has experts fearing that the African lion will be extinct by 2050. Yet, despite the king of the beasts’ rapid disappearance, “trophy hunts” remain legal and are even encouraged in many African countries.
Proponents argue that the hunts’ huge fees benefit conservation in the long run. Cecil’s killer, an American dentist who calls himself a recreational big-game hunter, paid two guides (both of whom have been arrested and charged with poaching) at least $50,000, money that supporters say can help increase animal protection but that a 2013 Economists at Large report says barely trickles down to the conservation effort.
Truth be told, Zimbabwe needs all the cash it can get. Its population of 15 million includes a staggering 1.7 million between ages 15 and 49 who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, according to MinnPost.com. That helps explain, the website says, why 91-year-old Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president since 1987, views “high-rolling big-game hunters as one way to bring in desperately needed money.”
But then there are the horrifying details of Cecil’s last days and the fact that his killer, Walter Palmer, has become the target of a global shaming campaign on social media and gone into hiding just as Zimbabwe officially asked the White House to extradite Palmer to face criminal charges stemming from Cecil’s death.
His claim that he thought the July 1 hunt was legal seems contradicted by the fact that a GPS collar placed on Cecil to track his movements around the preserve was conspicuously missing when the body was found.
That the collar ultimately failed to protect the 13-year-old Cecil has led to a quest for new methods to keep watch over endangered animals. Protect RAPID (Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device) is set to be road-tested on black rhinos in South Africa.
The Irish Examiner writes that the system features “a video camera, GPS and a 24-hour heart-rate monitor that triggers an alarm the moment a rhino is shot” and that “poachers caught in the trap will have no time to escape as park rangers are helicoptered to the scene of the crime within minutes.”
The rhinos will still wear tracking collars, but the cameras will be implanted in the horns that poachers so prize — and will be nearly impossible to remove or disable on the fly. In contrast, Cecil’s collar merely sent coordinates that uplinked to a satellite hourly. Protect RAPID would have alerted park rangers the moment he left the preserve.
Nepal has been painstakingly rebuilding its Bengal tiger population. Its goal is to have at least 250 by 2022. As of 2013, it had 198, an impressive jump from 121 in 2009. But while their anti-poaching efforts have been lauded, officials have still sought help from the experts at India’s Jim Corbett National Park, a haven for the endangered Bengal tiger.
The Nepalese are weighing whether to adopt Corbett’s sophisticated system of cameras connected wirelessly via a series of nine towers. Reserve Director Samir Sinha told ZeeNews India that the setup essentially acts as a “live telecast” and that any human intervention is immediately noted and acted upon. Since its inception, he said, there have been “no mishaps” pertaining to the park’s protected population.
As for a more targeted anti-poaching method, some protected areas are calling in the drones. South Africa has instituted the Air Shepherd Initiative, a two-pronged approach aimed at eliminating once and for all the illegal killing of rhinos and elephants. The system, writes Public Radio International, “uses military-style computer analytics to identify poaching hot spots and then sends silent drones equipped with night vision to track down poachers.”
It seems to be working, as PRI adds: “For the six months that drones were tested in areas of South Africa that had previously lost 12 to 19 rhinos a month, not a single rhino was killed. Similarly, when park rangers tested the predictive analytics in a private game reserve, they captured 24 poachers and no rhinos were killed.”
If nothing else, Cecil’s death exposed the fact that anti-poaching measures reliant on technology must change as new tactics, tools and techniques become available. For the moment, however, officials are keeping an eye on the remaining members of Cecil’s pride in hope of preventing another tragedy on their watch.