Saving the White Rhino
Using technology to defeat poachers in Kruger National Park
By Jim Moriarty
Photographs courtesy of Tough Stump Technologies
One of them is called Kokwane and the other is Nyeleti. They’re not characters out of The Lion King. Kokwane is Randy Roy, and his African name means grandpa. Nyeleti is Jimmy Larsen, and his African name means night star — the star used for navigation. Together, and with a little help from their friends, they’re doing about as much as two guys nearly 8,900 miles away can do to save the white rhino from extinction.
Last October, in the dark of the new moon, the pair visited Kruger National Park in South Africa to pass along some of the expertise they’d gained in the military to the park rangers who are the sole line of defense between the largest remaining population of white rhino in the world and the people who would destroy them for profit. Roy, a former policeman who worked as a dog trainer for Special Operations on Fort Bragg, made his first trip to Kruger in that advisory capacity in 2016 (though now he’s involved in drone mapping as well), while Larsen, recently retired from the Air Force, was attached to Special Operations and is an expert in telemetry.
It’s not unusual for advances of all types, be they technological or medical, made in war fighting to find peaceful uses, too. “The problem they have in South Africa is very similar to the problem we had in the military: Where the hell is everyone? Where should I go and what should I do?” says Larsen. The phases of the moon are critical because it’s during the full moon, and the days just before and after, when the barbaric poaching of rhino horns is most prevalent, so prevalent, in fact, that it’s called the Poachers Moon.
“Sixty percent of the white rhinos left in the world are located on Kruger National Park. The rhino horn is still the most lucrative commodity on Earth — more than gold, more than drugs,” says Roy.
Right: Employing and mastering new technology in Kruger National Park.
Rhino horn is coveted both for its rumored — though debunked — medicinal properties and as a status symbol, using the circular logic that possessing something so valuable is a value in itself. The poaching problem was particularly egregious during the pandemic. The national park was closed, but the poachers were open. “You’ve got the most expensive substance on the planet surrounded by some of the poorest places on the planet, protected by a few dozen people with a budget of next to nothing and a salary of about $500 a month. The fact that there are any rhino left at all is a testament to how good these guys are at their job,” says Larsen. “It’s a wicked problem.”
Kruger National Park is 7,523 square miles, 600 square miles larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The poachers generally work in teams of three. One carries a rifle, one carries an ax, and one is a runner who carries water. Sometimes they enter the park on foot, easily overcoming fences, and other times they come into the park in one or two private vehicles, pretending to be a family on a day’s outing, then jumping out of the cars to stalk the animals.
The park is not unprotected. Kruger has helicopters donated to it by Warren Buffett, and roughly 300 rangers work in shifts to defeat the poachers. There are sensors that alert the rangers to the sound of a gunshot and seismic cables that can tell them if poachers are in the area. Still, it all comes down to the rangers finding the poachers — hopefully before they’ve downed a rhino and cruelly chopped off most of its face — in the dark, over great distances, when they know the people they’re about to confront are armed.
Randy Roy and Jimmy Larsen
“The poachers are hardened bushmen themselves,” says Roy. “The park is full of lions. It’s full of leopards. It’s full of cape buffalo. Those are dangerous animals. They don’t care. They go in there on foot with the chance of getting a horn. With a poached horn, all of them will make more than they would working at the gas station or working at a restaurant for an entire year.”
During the Poachers Moon park rangers sleep in tents in the bush in teams of their own waiting for an alert. Their dedication to their work is legendary. Two years ago one of them was attacked by a leopard but managed to fight it off. “He shoved his COVID mask into his jugular, wrapped the seatbelt around his neck and drove two hours to a clinic. And came back to do his job when he was healed,” says Larsen.
Once the rangers have received an alert is when Roy, Larsen and the company they work for now — Tough Stump Technologies — come into play. “The way the guys were operating, they had the equivalent of a paper map on a table. They say, ‘Go to a point here, a point there,’” says Larsen. With the technology Roy and Larsen left behind on a trial basis, requiring neither Wi-Fi nor cell service, the operations center can send a specific point to a ranger on his cellphone, and he can navigate to it from his position. “Before, there was a guy who talks to another guy who has two radios and one of them is talking to the operations center and the other one is talking to the closest ranger. One is speaking English and one is speaking Swahili. They don’t have coordinates; they’re talking about reference points. Based on what we’d seen (with the new equipment) during a false alarm it went from about 90 minutes to 30 minutes for them to interdict.” In fact, in December, on an actual poaching alert, the response time was five minutes.
The technology leapfrogs language barriers — most of the rangers speak English, but it’s a second or third language to their native Shangaan, Tsonga, Swahili, Afrikaans, etc. — because it’s not necessary to talk. It also minimizes the risk of injury from friendly fire, since all the rangers know where all the other rangers are.
Gathering with the park rangers, their faces obscured for their own protection.
To prosecute the poachers in South African courts, the rangers need to retrieve the gun, the horn and, of course, the poacher. The technology makes the forensics easier, too. “There’s a rhino, there’s a weapon, there’s a horn. Picture, picture, picture. It plots it on the map. There’s no disputing anything,” says Larsen.
The project came about at the suggestion of Stephen Lee, a senior scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in the Research Triangle Park. Lee, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Emery University, has traveled to and from Africa for the past 15 years engaged in educational projects and in research, mostly with elephants, whose acute sense of smell led to ways to detect the presence of explosives, narcotics and chemical and biological agents. He became active in both anti-poaching and animal conservation and, because of his Army connections, was aware of the technology Roy, Larsen and Tough Stump had. “I thought this would be ideal,” says Lee. “I thought it would revolutionize how they do counter-poaching.”
The entire technology kit fits in a backpack at a cost of roughly $50,000, money the national park doesn’t have to spare. Because of that Roy and Larsen have begun fundraising, with the help of Southern Pines Rugby Club, for both the technology and the rangers themselves. To help, go to their website, ruggersagainstpoachers.com, where contributions can be channeled through a nonprofit 501(c)3.
The illegal trafficking of rhino horns is done, essentially, by organized crime syndicates. As a result, park rangers and their families can be in extraordinary danger. Their children need to be educated far away from their villages. In this story, as in all communications about the park rangers, their faces are blotted out to protect their identities.
Just like the technology Roy and Larsen left behind, it’s a small step to protect the protectors. And maybe save one of the planet’s most needlessly endangered species. PS
For more information about the poaching of rhino horns, watch the gritty, tough documentary Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Horn War. Jim Moriarty is the Editor of PineStraw and can be reached at email@example.com.