How Drones Can Help Save Elephants and Rhinos from Poachers

Conservation groups say drones are a powerful deterrent against wildlife poaching. So why are they grounded?

Image: Air Shepherd
Conservation group Air Shepherd is collaborating with University of Maryland researchers to launch a series of anti-poaching drone missions in South Africa.
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Last year, 25,000 elephants were killed by poachers throughout the African continent. In South Africa, more than 1,200 rhinos were slayed, a record year. The vast open expanses and dense undergrowth make it easy for illegal hunters to elude the authorities on the ground. Recently, though, conservationists have found a technology they believe could help them turn the tables on poachers: drones.

Anti-poaching groups operating in South Africa have successfully flown drones capable of giving them an “eye in the sky” and allowing patrolling rangers to locate and catch wildlife poachers. But although such missions could potentially save hundreds of animals every week, the drones have been grounded.

Early last year, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) announced that flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with cameras, for commercial gain, was against the law. The SACAA said it needed time to consider how best to regulate drones, including those used by anti-poaching organizations, in its airspace. The agency expects to make an announcement about the new regulations next month.

Filmmakers have used commercially available drones to capture aerial footage of African wildlife, but deploying them to search for poachers requires specialized technology. According to Eric Schmidt from Wildlife Protection Solutions, a Denver, Colo.-based company that has assisted conservation groups in South Africa, anti-poaching UAV missions need to be planned with the African bush in mind. 

“There’s no landing point and no runway out there,” Schmidt says. “A ranger needs something small enough to fit in a backpack and that will launch in 5 minutes.”

He explains that drones need to fly for long periods and distances, and for that reason fixed-wing models are more suitable than rotor-based machines. They must be able to operate autonomously or via remote control, and for night missions, they need to carry thermal imaging cameras.

From a ground station, drone operators monitor the images, looking for telltale signs of poaching activity: fences cut, trucks following known animal tracks, or the color blue, which in the bush, invariably means a pair of jeans, says Schmidt.

Conservationists hope drone technology can help not only locate poachers as they move through their hunting grounds and hiding spots, but also anticipate their next steps. The idea is predicting where poachers and animals will be, identifying known-trouble spots before an incident occurs. 

A conservation group called Air Shepherd is collaborating with researchers at the University of Maryland to develop a data analytics system that can do just that. 

“We can place rangers and drones in the areas where an incident is most likely to occur,” says Tom Snitch, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

Snitch explains that the behaviors of poachers and animals follow patterns. “There are more attacks, for instance, between 6:30 and 8 p.m., or when a full moon provides extra light,” he says. 

The drone’s flight plan would be calculated by a computer cluster in Maryland, and sent to a warden in a vehicle equipped with a UAV control station. The warden launches the drone, which then flies fully autonomously.

Air Shepherd has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a series of drone missions based on the data analytics approach. 

It’s difficult to quantify the precise, potential impact of drones across the whole of South Africa. Anti-poaching UAVs had only been used for a short while before the ban, and in many parts of Africa, conservation groups can’t afford drones. Instead, they rely on rangers and trackers to locate and catch the poachers.

Snitch says that using the Maryland system, rangers in one private nature reserve managed to stamp out poaching altogether. Previously, that reserve averaged nine killings a month.

‘This doesn’t mean we’re catching nine poachers a month,” Snitch says. “We just created a deterrent, so the poachers moved somewhere else.”

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