(CNN) – The southern white rhino has been on the verge of extinction and has returned, but despite continuing to be threatened by poachers, its survival is largely due to conservation work in a park.
Today, most of these rhinos can trace their ancestry back to Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park (HiP) in KwaZulu-Nata, South Africa.
In the late 19th century, the southern white rhino was on the verge of extinction due to game hunting.
However, by 2011, the numbers had increased from less than 50 to more than 17,000, primarily due to work at HiP.
“Throughout the southern rhino in the world, the gene pool comes from this park,” explains Richard Penn Sawers, park manager at HiP, known as the home of the rhino species.
“It is a species that has great importance in the world of conservation.”
Unfortunately, a new threat emerged just under a decade ago, when poachers began attacking rhinos by their horns.
Made entirely of keratin, a protein found in the hair, nails and hooves of animals, rhino horn has long been used as an ingredient in traditional medicine in countries like China and Vietnam.
Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park has brought advanced technology to protect southern white rhinos from poachers.
“It’s worth a lot of money,” adds Sawers. “It is worth more than gold.
“There is very high demand and we are experiencing serious threats to our rhino population at the moment.”
As a result, the 96,000-acre park, the oldest proclaimed wildlife reserve in Africa, has been found struggling to protect rhinos once again.
While rangers here have long been trained to deal with bushmeat hunters brandishing assemblies (spears) and bush knives, gun poachers were relatively new territory for them.
“The dynamic changed because international unions were getting involved,” says Sawers.
“I think the scourge of rhino poaching migrated south from parts of North Africa where the rhino had been wiped out.”
The international trade in rhino horn has been banned for years, but poachers can earn a great deal of money by selling it on the black market.
Integrated surveillance technology, including the smart fence, has been installed on the reserve grounds, along with camera traps to draw attention to intruders.
The reserve was previously losing 10-15 rhinos per month before the new measures were introduced.
“We consider this to be a war,” explains Sawers. “So in any war situation, rapid response and rapid detection are key.”
The park even has an intelligence gathering base, the HiP Nerve Center, which tracks information collected by cameras.
“They are [the camera traps] all linked to the internet and send their photos directly to the Nerve Center, “explains Sawers.
“So we know exactly where the camera is and where the photography is coming from. And we can react very, very quickly.”
The team uses a helicopter so they can get to the target areas quickly.
It was recently deployed just eight minutes after receiving the green light, arriving at its intended location about seven minutes later.
“Without the technology, it probably would have taken about two hours,” adds Sawers. “And by then it would have been too late.”
Of course, such advanced technology is expensive, the Peace Parks Foundation apparently contributed more than 10.6 million South African rand (about $ 600,000) to the rhino protection program.
Sawers says he is very encouraged by the results so far.
“Where we were losing 10-15 rhinos a month, that stopped completely,” he says.
For Sawers, whose great-grandfather was a park ranger here, protecting rhinos is too important for any level of complacency.
“The preservation of the southern white rhino is critical,” he adds. “We cannot allow it to disappear. It would be too horrible to contemplate.”