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Horn trimming of rhinos in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve (South Africa)

By Antipoaching No Comments
Media statement from North West Parks Board

Pilanesberg Nature Reserve boast a very important white rhino population, and it is certainly one of the important white rhino populations in South Africa, and even the world. Both white and black rhinos have shown to be adapting extremely well in the reserve and excess animals from this populations have been used to establish new populations across South Africa, and in Botswana.

The rhino population in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve has been plagued by poaching for at least the past 7years. Over this period, the reserve has lost more than 120 rhinos due to poaching. This obviously has had a deteriorating impact on the population, and it is showing a steady decline over the past few years. The current situation has prompted North West Parks Board to take drastic measure of intervention to save the species.

The North-West Parks Board decided to trim the horns of all rhinos in the reserve with the help of a veterinary services experts who arrived in Pilanesberg on the 12th May 2020. The team worked through the park trimming horns of all black and white rhinos, males, and females, and calves they found in the parks. Including treating old gunshot wounds and injuries of other animals.

Over the years, the procedure of trimming the horns of rhinos has been developed into a detailed protocol with almost no risk to the animal. It has been proven that the risk of loss of an animal, as well as injuries or improper removal of the horn is eliminated when it is conducted by a qualified and experienced veterinarian.

The animal is located, darted and immobilized by a veterinarian from a helicopter. When the animal is down, it is located by the ground team in the shortest possible time, the eyes and ears are immediately covered, and condition immediately monitored. The cutline on the horns are marked, and the horns are cut very close to the base with an electric wood saw.

The stump is then rounded with an angle grinder to remove all excess horn. The whole operation takes less than 15 minutes per animal, followed by the team withdrawing from the animal, the animal woken by the veterinarian and stroll off, slightly disorientated, but completely healthy and strong without any injuries or fatalities.

“Although we prefer rhinos to have their horns and be able to roam around safely without any threat, the horn trimming operation was necessary to relieve the pressure of poaching of the rhino population to allow it to recover to the levels it was prior to the escalation of poaching in the reserve” said the Pieter Nel, the Chief Conservation Officer.

Strategically, from a security perspective, Pilanesberg has a few severe challenges. However, the size of the reserve, the mountainous terrain, the size of management blocks, provincial roads surrounding, etc. all makes this reserve a target for poachers. The motivation behind the operation was to ensure the “reward to poachers is reduced” and “the risks to the poacher are increased”. This was also a key finding in a study commissioned by the National Department of Environmental Affairs on the effectiveness of horn trimming as a deterrent to poaching. The Board is in the process of increasing its security efforts in Pilanesberg and other reserves significantly.

There are fears that horn trimming may have an impact on the behavior of the animals, specifically in terms of defending territories and exerting dominance over other inferior bulls. However, data from the Zimbabwe Lowveld Conservancies shows that trimmed rhinos are as likely to retain territories as horned individuals. It needs to be acknowledged that a rhino’s horn is its primary defense mechanism. The bulls use it to defend its territory and dominance, and cows to defend their calves from predators and other bulls. For this reason, all animals in a population need to be trimmed in the shortest possible time to prevent horned individuals of displacing or injuring trimmed animals. However, possible ecological or behavioral problems associated with horn trimming can be justified against the imperative of keeping the rhinos alive.

It is estimated that the total cost of this operation is valued at approximately R2million due to horn trimming being a costly operation. The cost includes veterinary costs, helicopter flying time, as well as veterinary supplies. However, this operation was made possible by sponsorships from Rhino 911, Rhino Pride Foundation, Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust and Copenhagen Zoo who are all registered as non- profit organizations. The Board received additional assistance from Zodiac Dierekliniek, the pilots and ground crew who unselfishly made available their professional time and equipment at no cost to the project who worked hand in glove with the Park staff who supported the operation and whose dedication is acknowledged with pride.

Pete Morkel, wildlife veterinarian par excellence, conservation legend and beloved mentor

By Conservation No Comments
Gail C Thomson, The Daily Maverick | May 22, 2020

Read and listen to the original story here. 

From Namibia to Gabon, Chad, Angola and Niger, wildlife vet extraordinaire and conservation legend Dr Pete Morkel has left an indelible mark. Now he is fighting for his life in a battle with cancer. Friends and colleagues have launched a global fundraising campaign for his treatment. Gail C Thomson (formerly Potgieter) pays tribute to his remarkable career.

This is not an obituary. This is a tribute to a living conservation legend who is nonetheless fighting for his life. He has always been a fighter, though, long before cancer came knocking on his door. He has spent his life fighting for animals, particularly those that inhabit his beloved Africa. His name is Dr Pete Morkel.

This name is well known in conservation circles, but especially among wildlife veterinarians, where he is known as a pioneer. The conservation biologists who have worked with him have similarly recognised his abilities and have expressed deep gratitude for his help. While he is on a first-name basis with Prince Harry and received a lifetime achievement award from Prince William, Pete is relatively unknown to the general public. My purpose in writing this article is two-fold: to allow some of his co-workers to express their gratitude and to share some of their stories with those who may not be familiar with Pete’s work.

Pete is a pioneer wildlife veterinarian who has brought innovation and a new level of professionalism to his trade. Many of those who shared their stories with me (including several vets) consider him to be the best wildlife vet in Africa. According to Dr AK Kes Smith: “He was the only vet we trusted to immobilise the precious Northern White rhinos.” This effort included the very first efforts to save the remaining population in the wild, and bringing the last few of the species (including the famous male “Sudan”) from zoos to Ol Pejeta in Kenya.

Pete is especially known for his innovation, which is a result of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and ability to think laterally. Who would have thought that airlifting a rhino upside down by its feet was a good idea? Pete did, and it is now known to be the safest way of airlifting these hefty creatures via helicopter. His work also includes helping develop new tracking devices for rhinos – transmitters in the horns last longer and are safer for rhinos than the old ankle bracelets; and giraffes – neck collars don’t work on them, so small devices are fitted to their ossicones (“horns”) instead. Dr Kes Smith (rhinos) and Dr Julian Fennessy (giraffes) both testify that Pete was closely involved in both developing and testing these new tracking methods that have since become standard practice.

One of the most important responsibilities a wildlife vet has is to ensure that the entire process of darting, capturing, moving and releasing an animal is as safe as possible. Pete is driven by such a fierce love for the animals that he works with that he will do absolutely anything, even at great risk to his own safety, to keep each animal safe. As noted by Jessica Groenendijk when she witnessed Pete doing everything in his power to persuade a newly translocated rhino to eat a different diet in a new environment: “It was clear to me that, for Pete, each rhino was an individual in its own right, with a unique personality.”

Indeed, his personal safety and comfort seem to be the last thing on his mind. He is known to abandon his shoes altogether when approaching a dangerous animal to dart it, despite the vicious thorns found throughout African savannahs. He approaches each lumbering elephant or rhino extremely closely before aiming his dart gun. Shoes make slightly more sound than bare feet, and by doing without them he could get closer before firing, which meant that his shot would be more accurate and he could get to the darted animal as soon as it was down. The choice between improving animal safety (even marginally) and tearing up the soles of his feet by running full tilt through thorny bushes is an easy one for Pete – the animal comes first!

Before Pete helped develop transmitters to be implanted in horns, rhinos were either collared (pictured) or ankle bracelets were used – neither option was ideal.

Concerns about the safety of the animal do not stop after the initial darting. If the purpose of the operation is to translocate an animal from one place to another then the vet has to keep the animal in a state of semi-wakefulness throughout the transport phase. This is especially challenging for long-distance transportation, where the animal may be carried at different times by helicopter, truck and plane.

Dr Mark Jago, who has translocated many black rhinos himself, describes the procedure as a delicate “dance” between chemicals that wake the rhino up and put it to sleep. The aim is to keep a perfect balance between the two, so the rhino is awake but calm. This is especially tricky for black rhino, as Dr Jago explains:

“During movement, or translocation… it is said that the greatest threat to the black rhino is the black rhino. Cooped up in specially designed steel transportation crates, the explosive nature of the black rhino has the potential to result in serious damage to itself or even death as a result of its vain attempts to escape from confinement.” He learned from Pete how to choreograph this “dance” to perfection.

In such a delicate operation, there is always a chance that things can go wrong. And when they do, one needs nerves of steel and incredibly quick thinking to prevent the loss of life – human or animal. In one instance that Dr Jago recalls, Pete injected a rhino that was sleeping too deeply with a drug to make it slightly more awake. Little did he know that the syringe he used had previously contained another drug – one that wakes a rhino up 100%! What happened next, in Dr Jago’s words:

“Within less than 30 seconds the gargantuan colossus lumbers to his feet and stares at us from only a few metres away. Pete stands between us and certain chaos. He returns the rhino’s stare with equal menace and conviction. The moment hangs in the balance. Slowly, very slowly, the rhino turns and walks away. Pete looks into the distance deep in thought, and then without moving his feet he gradually and deliberately looks over his shoulder uttering the memorable words, ‘Gentlemen, that is how not to do it’.”

In the days before this chemical “dance” was as well refined as it is now, and before rhino translocations had a big enough budget to hire aircraft for the purpose, Pete was moving rhinos on transcontinental flights – a crazy endeavour at the time. In one case, he had to transport a female rhino from Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa to Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in the UK (in the last few years, he has spearheaded a project called “Back to Africa” to release the progeny of some European zoo rhinos back into the wild). Keeping a rhino calm during a long flight is one thing, but because this flight was not chartered for the purpose, it carried other cargo (including frozen fish) and had to make several stops along the way.

Pete came prepared for this arduous journey – with plenty of oranges. Each time he fed “Vuyu” the rhino an orange, she would go into a zombie-like state of total satisfaction, until she came back to earth and demanded another one. As he was one of the only witnesses to this amazing journey, here is some of it in his own words:

“Our first stop was Kinshasa. We had to reorganise all the pallets on the plane and this meant off-loading Vuyu onto the apron and keeping her there for about 30 minutes while they shuffled things around. Although there was a lot of aircraft movement, noise and strong lights, she was a sweetie-pie – as long as she had oranges! When it came time to put her back in the aircraft the hydraulic scissor lift was unable to get her pallet up to the level of the cargo door. We finally found another lift that did the job and off we went.

“Due to the delay, it was pretty obvious we were not going to make it with the oranges – and Vuyu without oranges was not the happiest rhino! After a quick stop in Lagos, our next one was going to be Vitoria in Spain, so I asked the pilot if he could radio ahead and get the people there to have plenty of oranges ready for us for when we arrived. When we got to Vitoria there were heaps of delicious Spanish oranges ready for spoilt Miss Vuyu – so needless to say she was happy all the way to the UK!”

Wildlife veterinary work isn’t just about handling animals, however, and many of Pete’s admirers were impressed most by the way he handles the less glamorous parts of the job. He has worked in countries that are politically unstable and where basic facilities and infrastructure were non-existent, yet some of Africa’s most endangered animals inhabit these countries and are therefore in dire need of conservation.

Dr Hubert Planton, who worked hard in the 1990s to save the now-extinct Western Black rhino, recalls the working conditions he and Pete endured in their three-week expedition in Cameroon during 1996:

“It was the onset of the rainy season, which means: no road, no defined trails; we had to do everything on foot, and there were no bridges to cross the streams/rivers. Daily temperatures reached 40°C with 100% humidity just before the heavy storms hit, which happened every day. For lunch, we shared stale bread and a can of sardines, plus a few dried bananas. Every evening we cooked couscous and added another can of sardines. We slept every night on the concrete floor, without a mattress, just under a mosquito net. Pete never complained, never.”

In Chad, Pete worked tirelessly to collar 70 elephants, darting each one on foot (as opposed to from a helicopter) under hot, difficult circumstances, without losing a single animal. Dr Dolmia Malachie, who worked with him on this mission, relates his experience:

“The first thing Pete impresses me with is his endurance. He likes to track elephants every day, regardless of weather conditions: hot or cold, wet or dry, day or night. We had to wake up early each morning and drive a little way before walking the rest of the way to find the elephants we were tracking. Pete then got into his rhythm: military-style, taking giant strides through the bush, he would hardly eat or drink for days at a time. Pete is no less than 20 years my senior, but I had to run to keep up with him!”

Perhaps the most dangerous work he has undertaken is darting forest elephants in Central and West African countries. These elephants are under severe poaching pressure and are thus known to be more aggressive than most savannah elephant populations. Furthermore, working in the confines of a rainforest means that visibility is highly limited and one can walk almost straight into an elephant if you’re not careful. As Dr Tobias Graessle, who worked in the Dzanga-Sangha rainforest in Central African Republic with Pete, recalls, “At times I was afraid my heart would escape my chest, pounding like a jackhammer.” While extremely dangerous, this work is immensely valuable, as little is known about this species of elephant, which is nonetheless even more threatened than its better-known savannah cousin.

Because he is willing to go places and do fieldwork that most would baulk at, Pete has had a hand in conserving, researching and managing animals that few people have ever seen. From giant sable in Angola and giant eland in Chad to forest elephants in Gabon and West African giraffe in Niger, he has overcome the odds posed by extreme environmental conditions and proved to others that nothing is impossible.

Part of what makes his work so successful is his ability to improvise and come up with solutions to the major challenges posed in each situation. This is what Dr Julian Fennessy fondly terms “Morkelling: the act of fixing or building/adapting something in the field – like MacGyver”. Considering that Fennessy specialises in the research and conservation of one of the most difficult animals in Africa for a vet to immobilise – the giraffe – he knows what he’s talking about! He and Pete have worked together in west, east and southern Africa on all of the giraffe subspecies and under every conceivable circumstance. Pete’s methods of capturing and translocating giraffe have thus become “best practice” for working with this tricky species.

Translocating animals is about so much more than just darting, loading and unloading. It is a complex operation that requires teams of people all working together for the same goal. Each operation comes with its own challenges, which allows Pete to showcase his out-of-the-box thinking. Dr Marketa Antoninova, who worked with him on many such projects in various countries recalls:

“He never hesitated to follow the most insane proposition to satisfy our operational needs, while always keeping the animal’s well-being in first place. He brought a simple and realistic approach to any conservation operation in which he participated.”

While many vets are good at working with animals, Pete is also exceptionally good at working with teams of people, a skill that has become a hallmark of his career. As expressed by Dr Antoninova:

“He was always willing to share knowledge gained from his vast experience and put other people together to share. That is a very rare phenomenon in conservation, especially in the current era where data are overly protected.”

As a result, Pete has helped build game capture teams from scratch and has contributed immensely to those in South Africa, Namibia and Uganda, among others. He has been integral to the many successful large-scale reintroduction efforts by African Parks in countries such as Chad, Malawi, Rwanda, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Moving beyond game capture, Pete has been instrumental in broader conservation projects like Dr Pedro Vaz Pinto’s award-winning work on giant sable in Angola. Dr Vaz Pinto credits Pete for going far beyond his role as a vet:

“Pete selflessly assumed a crucial advisory role on many aspects of the giant sable programme – he created a network of relevant and usually the best people to assist the project. He even used his personal influence to expose our work to potential donors and actively assisted us with fundraising. It is no exaggeration to say that the results obtained on the giant sable project, which has so far succeeded in rescuing this amazing species from the brink of extinction in spectacular fashion, would hardly have been possible without Pete.”

Building a good team that can carry out large-scale operations requires a certain kind of leader. Pete intuitively recognises talented, dedicated young people and then mentors to become the professionals he knew they could be when he first saw them. Numerous young vets, field biologists, rangers and conservation managers credit Pete for giving their careers a vital boost through his direct training and his general influence as a mentor.

In the words of Jean Labuschagne and Erik Mararv: “Pete loves passionate and hardworking individuals, especially youngsters, and always goes out of his way to help give them experiences and boost their confidence in whatever it is they are doing.”

One of his early mentees, Cathy Dreyer, first met Pete in 1999 when she was fresh out of university and had very little field experience. At that time, Pete was the head of the SANParks Game Capture Unit in Kimberley, South Africa. She recalls:

“Pete introduced me to my first black rhino and from that day on my life was never the same. I not only learned everything I know about black rhino from Pete, but learnt the art of boma training these animals and preparing them for journeys all over Africa.” Since then, she has been appointed as conservation manager for Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa and has won the Tusk Trust Award for Conservation in Africa.

Many young vets and researchers met him while attending the internationally acclaimed “Course on Chemical and Physical Restraint of African Wildlife” in Zimbabwe, where he and other experienced vets taught them both the theory and practice of game capture for a wide array of species. One of these, Dr Anna Haw, suggests that Pete’s training went beyond technical know-how:

“I knew that I wanted to be a vet like Pete, and stick to my values and principles. Pete’s example gave me the courage to turn down lucrative private wildlife vet jobs that went against my conservation values. I cannot be more grateful for following his excellent example.”

At his suggestion, she went on to complete a PhD focusing on rhino immobilisation and has thus contributed to further improvements in this field – a contribution after Pete’s own heart.

Dr Amanda Salb is another young vet whose career and work in Malawi has greatly benefitted from Pete’s mentorship. In her words:

“Pete was really one of the biggest mentors in my career here and his foresight has helped us so much in Malawi. Every time he was here, he let me tag along with him and learn from him.” In common with many others, Salb knew that Pete was always just a phone call away and would willingly offer his advice, day or night:

“I remember darting my first elephant, which was caught in a snare. I called him at 6am for help and he answered the phone and was critical to the success of that snare removal.”

Another young vet from Uganda, Dr Robert Aruho, jumped at the chance to express his gratitude to Pete, echoing the sentiments of many others:

“Pete has inspired courage and patience to look after wildlife in a way no one else I know has ever shown. He has taught me wildlife veterinary practice like a father teaching a son. For this I am very grateful. Despite our age differences, I consider him a friend. He is selfless and will do anything in his power to save a wild animal from distress.”

Besides assisting other vets, Pete has interacted with many conservation researchers in the early stages of their careers. Among these is PhD candidate Emma Hart, who witnessed first-hand Pete’s renowned giraffe-capturing skills during her research in north-western Namibia. She recalls:

“In 2016 Pete taught me to shoot a gun, drive a 4×4 vehicle and rope a wild giraffe in the Namib Desert. Pete has the rare ability to both believe in and nurture the best from those he meets. During my first months in the Namibian conservation scene, as well as teaching me countless field skills, he took the time to personally introduce me to a network of invaluable contacts.”

Dr Colleen Begg, now a well-known carnivore conservationist working in Mozambique, was also fortunate enough to work with Pete while still a PhD student herself. With her husband, Keith, Dr Begg did some ground-breaking work on honey badgers in the South African Kalahari Gemsbok National Park during 1996-99. Keith recalls:

“Pete was very important in helping us get SANParks permission that allowed Colleen and I to track, immobilise and radio collar honey badgers”.

They realised early on that collars didn’t work on their feisty study subject, so Pete and other vets were brought in to surgically implant radio transmitters under the badger’s skin. This allowed them to observe the secret life of a honey badger, which led to a greater scientific understanding of the species, a multi-award winning National Geographic documentary called Snake Killers, and the now-viral videos on the theme “Honey badger don’t care” that have attracted over 90 million views.

This is just the just a small selection of the work Dr Pete Morkel has done over the years. If this sounds to you like an incredibly fast-paced, hectic career, then you are right. For most conservation researchers and park managers, darting and translocating animals is a time of high-paced stress that only comes around every few months or even years. The rest of the time one can get back to normal-paced, less stressful tasks. For Pete, this was life. From weeks of arduous trekking through the bush in Chad to dart elephants, to multi-day transcontinental flights with precious rhino on board, to running for his life from forest elephants in central Africa, Pete was almost continuously on the go. Indeed, he and Dr Fennessy were just about to embark on another West African giraffe translocation project in Niger when Pete was forced to slow down his breakneck pace in January this year.

His cancer diagnosis came as a shock to all, particularly the doctor’s prognosis that it would be extremely difficult to treat using radiation or chemotherapy. Thankfully, Pete has a wonderful, close-knit family and a huge network of friends who are there for him in this time of difficulty. Throughout his storied career, Pete’s wife Estelle has been his rock – no matter how far or for how long he had to be away from home, she was always there for him, just a phone call away. His colleagues and friends have always recognised Estelle as the heartbeat of this seeming superhero. Furthermore, his two children Chéri and Benoit have most certainly made him proud by enhancing the Morkel name even further through their own conservation careers.

Given the rather bleak prognosis for conventional cancer treatment, a medical doctor close to Pete has suggested that he try immunotherapy. This treatment is extremely expensive, so a group of Pete’s close friends – Mike Kock, Hugo van der Westhuizen and Rick Clark – launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the costs, knowing that the expense was way beyond the family’s financial means. The speed with which this campaign reached its initial $100,000 target is a testament to the number of lives Pete has touched both personally and professionally. While this covers the treatment, there will be many more expenses to cover, so the target has been raised by $50,000 for this purpose.

If it were up to Pete, every cent of the funds raised to help pay for his cancer treatment would go to conservation instead. He’s just that kind of man. Thankfully, his circle of family, friends and colleagues recognise that the value of his personal contribution to conservation over the years utterly dwarfs the amount he needs for treatment. Considering all that he has sacrificed over the years, our contributions are just a small “thank you” for his priceless work.

If you, too, would like to say thank you to one of conservation’s heroes, follow this link.

For more about Dr Pete Morkel’s life work and dedication to conservation, his biography, written by his brother, Michael, can be purchased here.


Co-innovation paves way for protection of Africa’s endangered elephants and rhinos

By Science and technology No Comments
Media statement in Creamer Media’s Engineering News | May 27, 2020

Read the original story here.

In the fight to protect Africa’s endangered wildlife, powerful tech such as cloud computing, drones, and machine learning can play a critical role in enhancing conservation efforts, and in combatting poaching and the resultant illicit trade.

In one on-going collaboration between SAP’s Co-Innovation Lab and the nonprofit Elephants, Rhinos & People, or ERP (see erp.ngo), strides made to combat poaching of elephants and rhinos could become a blueprint for conservation efforts across the continent.

According to Rudi de Louw, Head of the Co-Innovation Lab at SAP Africa, advances in technology and new ways of collaborating are paving the way for the development of innovative solutions to protect Africa’s wildlife. ‘Having powerful technology means nothing if you can’t achieve accuracy and consistency in the data and outcomes it produces. We undertook an extensive and on-going co-innovation project with ERP focusing on technical feasibility, product development and refinement. The outcomes are exciting and potentially game-changing – especially, in this case, for an elephant and rhino population that remains under threat.’

There are an estimated 30,000 rhinos remaining in the wild today, a significant decrease – largely due to poaching and habitat destruction – from the half million that roamed Africa and Asia at the start of the 20th century. Rhino poaching reached crisis levels in the last decade, with instances in South Africa increasing more than 9,000% from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014. Encouragingly, the latest reported figures show a sharp decline in rhino poaching activity, with 594 cases in 2019.

Elephants have also been targeted. After a single poaching incident in 2014 – the first in South Africa in a decade – elephant poaching activity spiked, with 71 reported cases in 2018. The latest official figures show a decrease of more than half for 2019. Across Africa, thousands of elephants have been brutally slaughtered in recent years, with almost entire populations being wiped out in certain African countries.

People, Tech Enhance Conservation Efforts

The nonprofit Elephants, Rhinos & People was founded to preserve and protect Southern Africa’s wild elephants and rhinos through a strategy that is based on alleviating poverty in rural areas surrounding the threatened creatures. It forms part of the structure of groupelephant.com, a largely employee-owned group of companies, non-profits and impact investment organisations with a strong global presence that also includes EPI-USE, the world’s largest independent SAP HCM and Payroll specialist.

Since 2017, ERP.ngo has piloted an anti-poaching strategy that has completely eliminated poaching of megafauna in the areas it monitors. David Allen, ERP Air Force project lead at ERP, and a senior SAP practitioner in EPI-USE, says the deployment of new technologies has been a core element of the initiative’s success. ‘Following a year-long testing and innovation process in partnership with the Co-Innovation Lab, we have made major strides in refining our machine vision, machine learning and response capabilities.’

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was initially used to monitor the movement of elephants but was quickly deployed to provide a layer of intelligence to how teams responded to alerts. ‘This way a guard could make an informed decision over whether there’s need for an anti-poaching team or, in the case of a fire, a fire team without first having to travel out to the affected area. We gradually expanded this layer of intelligence to other areas,’ says Allen.

Tech at the Heart of Conservation Efforts

Allen says one of the first priorities for the project was to address occasional instabilities in their prototype IT environment. ‘The Co-Innovation Lab team helped us migrate to SAP Cloud Platform, and SAP is providing three years’ cloud hosting to support the production process.’

Siddharth Taparia, SVP and Head of Experience Marketing at SAP, who led the team, says the project marked a world-first for the organization. ‘While we have supported non-profit organizations by providing our on-premises solutions before, this was the first time we supported a partner in the Cloud and illustrates how the brave new world of cloud is transforming businesses of all sizes.’

Following the migration, ERP and the Co-Innovation Lab started working on technical feasibility tests for some of their more ambitious ideas, many of which have over time proven invaluable to the success of conservation efforts. One of these ambitious ideas, according to De Louw, involves extensive development of machine learning algorithms to enable the team to improve its response, data capturing and processing capabilities.

‘A network of different cameras within the reserve trigger whenever movement is detected. Machine vision is used to track movement while machine learning algorithms help distinguish between threats and non-threats. This has required us to feed our algorithms vast amounts of data to train them to distinguish between animals, people and other movement.

This accuracy is important: as soon as rangers receive too many alerts – especially if they prove to be false – trust in the system starts eroding. ‘We need to reduce false-positives to ensure rangers are only alerted when something requires their attention. This is simpler to accomplish with the on-the-ground cameras, but our UAV-mounted cameras require significant further training and development. A rhino seen from ground level is fairly easy to distinguish from an elephant or person, but as soon as you take an aerial view, animals tend to fade into the landscape. As our data set grows and we refine our machine learning algorithm, these types of inaccuracies will be resolved over time.’

Community Model Partnership for Success

Technology, however, is only one part of solving the problem of poaching. According to Allen, without the support of local communities most conservation efforts are doomed to failure. ‘The poaching trade is immensely profitable. A single rhino horn can fetch more than R5-million on the global black market. For local communities where the average income is as little as R3,000 per month, promises of more money could be life changing. Poachers exploit this, promising a small share of the profit in exchange for protection from authorities.’

Este Smith, Managing Director of ERP says they have introduced several initiatives to involve local communities in conservation efforts, which bring them a direct socio- economic benefit for their efforts. ‘Our Ashoka accredited PEACE (Planning, Education, Agriculture, Cooperatives and Environment) Model is used to provide a holistic, replicable and sustainable poverty alleviation strategy in these remote communities living either adjacent to, or within conservation areas. P.E.A.C.E. Centers are cooperatively-run hubs within local and district municipalities that provide communities with centralised access to education, improved service delivery and agricultural initiatives ranging from permaculture gardens to commercial operations. By enabling residents to unlock and utilise local resources in a sustainable manner, we help pave a way for them to move out of poverty and toward prosperity.’

Through their #BIKES4ERP initiative, ERP has donated more than two hundred bicycles, to aid community member movement and help children who live far from the nearest school get to class more easily. A ‘study-to-own’ contract was set with each child to empower them to attain an education – if they attend school for a number of years, ownership of the bicycle will transfer to them. #BIKES4ERP has had a positive effect on the academic achievements of the recipients, ensuring that they are able to get to school more easily – saving precious time and effort, and based upon records kept to date the pass rate of the schools where the bikes are deployed grew from below 50% to more than 85% in 2019.

Through our We Code program, which is held in partnership with local high schools, we are also providing coding training to local youth,’ says Smith. ‘The course allows young people to learn coding in a way that is exciting and relevant to them, for example through programming drones, which builds important digital skills while also enhancing the relevance of other subjects such as math and science.’

According to Smith, the We Code program also potentially holds direct benefits for ERP. ‘One of the main constraints to scaling our conservation model is the lack of drone pilots. By investing in local youth skills development, we could also create the next generation of drone pilots to support similar conservation efforts across the country – and later, in other parts of Africa.

Smith explains that in the wake of the economic devastation caused by the novel coronavirus-related government shutdown, ERP has funded and mobilized a multi-location logistics effort to feed indigent people in communities adjacent to its land-based projects.  In the month of May, several hundred thousand meals will be distributed to 9 locations near conservation areas that ERP is either leasing, negotiating to lease, or simply safeguarding with drone technology. The feeding program will soon be extended to cover an area Zimbabwe, where ERP is currently exploring conservation land deals.

ERP will eventually deploy its technology model to other conservation areas in South and Southern Africa. ‘We are already working on opportunities to scale our solution to reach other reserves. Through a range of community initiatives, we hope to mobilise local communities to support conservation efforts while also unlocking greater skills development and economic opportunities in the process. With our partners at the Co-Innovation Lab, we will also continue to refine the technology underpinning our efforts to protect some of our continent’s most majestic endangered animals.’

Dogs trained to protect wildlife have saved 45 rhinos from poachers in South Africa

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
By Lucy Harvey & Lorraine King, The Mirror |May 13, 2020

Read original story here.

A pack of dogs that trained to protect wildlife have already saved 45 rhinos from poachers in South Africa.

The dogs, who range from a beagle to bloodhound, began training from birth and learnt how to handle all the pressures of real operations before working at 18 months-old.

Original photo as published by the Mirror. The pack of dogs have saved the lives of 24 rhinos (Image: Sean Viljoen / SAWC / Ivan Carter WCA / Caters News).

Sean Viljoen, who is based in Cape Town, shared photographs of the dogs in action at the Southern African Wildlife College in Greater Kruger National Park.

The 29-year-old is the owner of a production company called Conservation Film Company which aims to bring cinematic storytelling to the characters on the frontline of conservation and share stories of hope.

Johan van Straaten, who is a K9 Master at the college, said: “The data we collect for this applied learning project aimed at informing best practice, shows we have prevented approximately 45 rhino being killed since the free tracking dogs became operational in February 2018.

“In the areas where the Southern African Wildlife College patrol, the success rate of the dogs is around 68 per cent using both on and off leash free tracking dogs, compared to between three to five per cent with no canine capacity.

“The game changer has been the free tracking dogs who are able to track at speeds much faster than a human can in terrain where the best human trackers would lose spoor.

“As such, the project is helping ensure the survival of southern Africa’s rich biodiversity and its wildlife including its rhino which have been severely impacted by wildlife crime. South Africa holds nearly 80 per cent of the world’s rhino.

“Over the past decade over 8,000 rhino have been lost to poaching making it the country hardest hit by this poaching onslaught.”

The dogs which include a Texan Black-and-Tan Coonhounds, Belgian Malinois, Foxhounds and Blue Ticks are trained to ‘benefit required counter poaching initiatives’ which includes free tracking, incursion, detection, patrol and apprehension dogs.

He adds: “They begin training from birth and are socialised from a very young age.

“They learn how to track, bay at a person in a tree and follow basic obedience.”

“At six months we put all that training together more formally – they do have the necessary skill set to do the work at a younger age but are not mature enough to handle all the pressures of real operations.

“Depending on a number of factors dogs become operational at around 18 months old.”

Thula Thula rhino poaching attempts foiled (South Africa)

By Antipoaching No Comments

The Zululand Observer | April 26, 2020

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Rhino poaching attempts at Thula Thula Private Game Reserve has increased since the start of the national lockdown.

Thula Thula Managing Director, Francoise Anthony, said two groups of poachers entered the reserve on Wednesday, but were intercepted by security personnel.

Original photo as published by the Zululand Observer. White Rhino.

‘Our security, Project Rhino and K-9 unit members were called out to track down the poachers, but they managed to escape.’

The reserve was targeted twice before since the lockdown.

‘We think because the reserve has been quiet in terms of not having guests, poachers are seeing this as an opportunity.

‘However, we are well protected and they have not succeeded,’ said Anthony.

Photos of the fight to save the world’s last two northern white rhinos (Kenya)

By Conservation, Science and technology No Comments
Jennifer O’Mahony, i-D | April 22, 2020

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Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the reproduction management department at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, leads the team of scientists who announced in September of last year that they had successfully created two viable northern white rhino embryos using in vitro technology and sperm from long-dead males.

Following decades of poaching for their horns, there are just two northern white rhinos left in existence, mother and daughter pair Najin and Fatu, who live under 24-hour guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya’s central highlands. Both are infertile. The two embryos will now be inserted into a surrogate southern white rhino, the closest subspecies. If a calf is born, it would herald a new era for conservation — and for one of the world’s most important critically endangered animals.

Original photo as published by i-D

Jennifer O’Mahony: When did you start working with the concept that in vitro technology could be an asset for biodiversity and conservation?

Thomas Hildebrandt: For the northern white rhino project, there are two really important developments. Firstly, the in vitro technology that was already used for other species in the past. What is new since 2012 was pairing that with stem cell technology, because for the northern white rhino, assisted reproduction would be not sufficient to actually create a self-sustaining population. If you don’t get together enough genetic diversity in the population, then it makes no sense to speak about future reintroduction plans. By pairing these two approaches, that gave us a totally new horizon on saving critically endangered species, and it also changed the way we evaluate the status of species which are on the brink of extinction. While in the past, that was based on the number of fertile individuals in the population, that is no longer necessary—or at least in the future it will no longer be unnecessary, because every infertile or even dead animal can contribute to the population by utilizing this kind of technique.

And how have you shifted your approach as the technology has evolved?

We were quite disappointed, because we worked with the northern white rhinos in the early 2000s, and all our efforts got less and less successful because of a very small population. We went to San Diego Zoo, we scanned all the individuals there, we collected semen from the last bull, which had a poor semen quality. We did that, but we were not hopeful that it had any implication for saving the species. At that time, there was the existing population of 30 individuals in Garamba. And actually, we were invited to go there to harvest more semen from the wild ones, when they were supposed to get a transponder put into their horns. But the trip was cancelled, due to the civil war. So, we never went and shortly after, all of those individuals were gone. And there is still a rumor that there are some remaining individuals left in Sudan, but nobody can prove that. The stem cell technique is only proven in a mouse, not in a rhinoceros, but it’s available to us. These samples we have for the northern white rhino are of equal or even higher genetic diversity than those of the southern white rhino (there are more than 17,000 southern white rhinos left in existence and just two northern white rhinos).

The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in 2018 leaving behind a daughter and granddaughter. Before his death, nine years had gone by with no northern white rhino births. Why is it so hard for rhinos to reproduce?

Infertility comes quite early. In the wild, the female would have one ovarian cycle every five years, because she finds a suitable breeding partner, and then she gets pregnant for 16 months. After she gives birth, then she’s lactating and is raising the calf, and during that entire time, we have an ovarian dormancy (she cannot get pregnant). If the suitable breeding partner is missing, then the female is ovulating every month, and estrogen is a carcinogenic substance. If you have about two years of cycle activity in a female rhino, then the likelihood that you develop severe pathologies is very high.

So, it is dangerous for them not to get pregnant?

The pregnancy is actually a curing element, and ovulation is a very rare event. A rhino ovulates every four years.

What is the best way to tackle the biggest threat to rhinos: poaching?

There are different organizations which are quite good at stopping smugglers and enforcing a military presence in natural reserves or national parks. But there’s one aspect, which I think should be a little bit more explored: the option to breed or to produce rhino horn in vitro. Nobody is doing that. If there is such demand on the Asian market for this kind of product, it could be easily—well, not easily, but at least it is thinkable that you could produce it like you do silk from spiders. Then, most likely is the argument that these people want the real horn. But I think that would be an option, but on every side, it’s very hard. And it is really a kind of war. It’s a very sad point, and as a reflection of that, we always get the argument, “You are now spending so much effort and so much resources to create the northern white rhino population to a level that you can reintroduce them, and then they will all be shot again.” My answer to that is that we see a lot of examples, and the best one is in Australia. In the 1930s, Australia paid a bounty for killing Tasmanian tigers, and they erased all the Tasmanian tiger population. And now they invested millions of Australian dollars to create an institute exploring the option to recreate the Tasmanian tiger to reintroduce it to Tasmania. I think if the African nations get the option to utilize the northern white rhino as a magnet for ecotourism, there will be sufficient protection from the government and from the younger generation, which will allow them to propagate in the right way and will protect them in the future.

Species have died out throughout history. Why do you think it’s important to focus research and money on these larger mammals like rhinos? What is it about them for you that makes them so important to save?

The rhino didn’t die out because of a failure in evolution. It died out because it’s not bulletproof. It’s an absolutely human-made effect. And it’s a key species, which is an umbrella species for hundreds of other species. It distributes plants on a large scale; it produces feces for insects; it makes avenues for small antelopes and other small animals; it’s a landscape architect, one of the most important ones. It lives in swampy areas, so you can’t actually bring southern white rhinos to Central Africa. So, it is a very important element, and you may remember what happens when you disturb a fragile ecosystem. It didn’t fail in evolution, it didn’t fade out slowly, but it was shot. So, by messing with this fragile ecosystem, by taking out such an important element, I think we will pay badly for this mistake, and therefore, I think it’s our responsibility to fix it.

Do you think in your lifetime, you will see a rhino being born from the embryos that you have developed?

It is not the scale of my lifetime, it is a scale of the lifetime of Najin and Fatu. So, we have to be successful as soon as possible, because we have the genetic code, which makes up species, but we also have tradition, we have the behavior aspect (any future calf would be born from a surrogate, but raised with the last remaining northern white rhinos who are both infertile). And we really want that new northern white rhino calf. These embryos have the potential to develop into such a calf, and they can learn from the last two remaining northern white rhinos. That is our goal right now. I hope I don’t fail in this kind of hope.

Kenya’s black rhino Akinyi gives birth to 4th calf

By Conservation No Comments
Xinhuanet.com | April 22, 2020

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A black rhino has given birth to a calf at the Meru National Park in central Kenya, a government official confirmed on Tuesday.

Black rhino is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala said the black rhino, known as Akinyi, gave birth to the fourth calf five days ago.

Original photo as published by News Ghana. A black rhino has given birth to a calf at the Meru National Park in central Kenya, a government official confirmed on Tuesday.

“We are happy to report a newborn black rhino in Meru National Park. Mother’s name — Akinyi. Akinyi has had four calves including the new birth,” Balala said.

He said Akinyi’s first three are males and her latest newborn has not been sexed yet. “The age of her newborn calf is estimated to be five days old,” Balala said.

The conservationists say the Meru Rhino Sanctuary has become a bastion of Kenya’s rhinos and a beacon of hope for the species as each new birth will be confirmed.

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust says March was a month for great celebration within Meru Rhino Sanctuary, as its population grew by three perfect babies. Kenya is now home to just over 760 black rhinos and 620 southern white rhinos, according to conservationists.

Former Australian sniper works to curb African rhino poaching

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
Steve Goldstein, KJZZ | October 23, 2019

See link for photo & 9-minute audio interview

Though numbers indicate poaching of African rhinos has leveled off, the problem is still dramatic. Figures from Save the Rhino International show that two and half rhinos are killed every day in South Africa, often by poachers who want to take their horns and sell them.

Original photo as published by Kjzz.org: A conservation ranger undergoes sniper training in the bush to curb poaching. (Photo: Brent Stirton)

Former Australian Royal Navy Clearance Diver and Special Ops Military Sniper Damien Mander made stopping poaching his goal as founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.

The Show spoke with Mander alongside Vimbai Kumire, a member of Zimbabwe’s all-female ranger unit devoted to anti-poaching. The two of them are at Mesa Arts Center Wednesday night as part of the annual National Geographic Live speakers series.

See link for photo & 9-minute audio interview