Skip to content

Stopping the poachers: technological solutions for rhino conservation

Two University of Gloucestershire professors are helping to stop the poaching of rhinos in 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 front-line rangers. ​

During the years 2008 to 2018, over 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 such poaching, tragically approximately 5% of the population of these species is lost each year − driving them towards extinction. 

Adam Hart and Anne Goodenough with Rhino Rangers

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 front-line 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. By 2020, the reserves using this approach cover a combined area of over 44,000 sq km (double the size of Wales), which together support 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 and in some cases have not 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 front-line rangers. 

Professor Anne Goodenough said:
“Rhino are poached for their horn by organized, 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 poses considerable threat to front-line 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 combating 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. However, with borders now opening up again rhino poaching rates are sadly already starting to rise, meaning initiatives such as this have never been more important. 

The University of Gloucestershire is dedicated to dynamic impactful research that brings real benefit to the planet and for societies across the globe. 

More information on the research can be found at ​​