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21st century poachers: How intelligence experts are helping save the rhino

Impact case study for REF 2021: Politics and International Studies (UoA 19)

It’s a rather sad fact that in the 21st century, killing rhinos and pillaging their horns is big business – especially given that the main driver is often men half a world away desperately seeking a little boost to their faltering ‘prowess.’

But still, year on year, rhinos are tracked, shot and mutilated in their hundreds, with the World Wide Fund for Nature suggesting that only around 27,000 non-captive rhinos still exist today – just 5% of the number that existed a century ago.

So, can we beat the poachers before it’s too late? Whilst conservation efforts around the world are helping boost local populations, the animal’s numbers remain dangerously low globally, with complete eradication in the next few decades still a distinct possibility.

“The starting point is to realise that there are no wild rhinos and very few wild elephants left in Africa,” says Dr Kristian Gustafson, a Reader in Intelligence and War at Brunel University London, who has been working with the NGO African Parks on tackling the problem.

“They have been poached so badly that they almost all exist in national parks and protected areas. So rather than treating it as a conservation problem, we need to make it about guarding assets that the local government owns, because effectively all these animals are in government owned preserves."

Historically, poaching had been treated as a local crime problem, with authorities more focused on catching those who had killed a rhino than working to prevent the rhino from being killed in the first place – an issue Dr Gustafson put down to a misunderstanding of who is doing the poaching.

“Historically, we’ve treated the people who live in the national parks as a problem. We’ve said, 'well, there's 20,000 people living in this park, so that's 20,000 potential poachers',” said Dr Gustafson.

“But tracking a rhino is hard and dangerous work. There are plenty of big animals in the parks that will do you harm, including the rhinos themselves. So, the actual poachers are a very narrow group of specialists, who move around all of Africa.”

Dr Gustafson and his research team proposed to the parks that the key to tackling the poachers was to stop treating them as petty criminals, but rather sprawling, well-armed and well-funded organised crime gangs, who rely on a small number of highly trained specialist hunters to do the actual poaching.

“In the past, the parks treated poaching as a kind of a conservation, animal husbandry problem. But we felt it’d become a security problem – a security problem amenable to treatment by improved sharing of information and intelligence between national parks,” he said.

“They needed to act like a nation-state might and run collection networks around the things they were trying to protect. So, talk to the locals. Treat the local population living in the parks as part of the solution, not part of the problem. It was one of the biggest steps that came through our research. And it’s now changing the way parks pursue poachers.”

An example Dr Gustafson pointed to was the poacher’s use of poisoned watermelons. The teams learned that there was a poaching group that were using the poisoned fruit to kill elephants – information which was then shared with other parks so that could investigate any reports of groups buying up watermelons.

By adopting this kind of intelligence-led approach, some parks were able to reduce their poaching incidents from over 50 per year to zero, whilst others increased poaching arrests by 200%.

“What we have achieved is a sustainable solution that African parks can manage themselves – they don't need us to come in and tell them how to do it,” said Dr Gustafson.

“We’ve developed some specific methodologies as experts at the university, and provided some strategy and training, but it’s the rangers in the parks executing the work. There will be further ups and downs, but I think the parks now have the edge.”

Research team member Luke Townsend doing intelligence training with local rangers
Research team member Luke Townsend doing intelligence training with local rangers
Rangers receiving intelligence training
Rangers receiving intelligence training

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Intelligence and Security Studies - As an inter-disciplinary research centre, established to deal specifically with intelligence issues, policy and institutions, to promote and develop social science and policy-oriented approaches to intelligence.


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Project last modified 07/06/2022