Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Could Drones Be Used to Combat Wildlife Poaching?

Could Drones Be Used to Combat Wildlife Poaching?

Picture a band of rhino poachers toting high-caliber rifles and axes, creeping stealthily through an African wildlife preserve under cover of darkest night. As the poachers draw closer, they’re spotted by a lone sentinel who has vigilantly been keeping watch over the endangered animals. First this sentinel sends an encrypted text message to park rangers stationed miles away at their headquarters, alerting them to the presence of the intruders. The rangers board a helicopter and fly out to intercept the marauding horde. Meanwhile, the rhinos’ guardian races toward the poachers and keeps them at bay by flashing bright lights to frighten and distract them. 

Global trade in illegal wildlife is valued at between $8 billion and $10 billion a year—could drones like this help combat the poaching? Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Presently the rangers arrive, and the poachers are apprehended. The rhinos are safe. And the brave sentinel—a small, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) more commonly known as a "drone"—zooms through the midnight air back to the rhino herd, over which it will continue to hover, watchfully and faithfully.

The scenario is hypothetical for now. But it may not be in a year’s time. Usually associated with lethal military operations, drones are getting a chance to earn a kinder, gentler reputation as protectors of wildlife. As the poaching of rhinos, elephants and other animals has skyrocketed throughout Africa, conservationists are joining forces with drone technology specialists to combat this heinous crime. Now these groups say they may have hit upon the holy grail of counterpoaching: a practical, affordable and effective strategy that will help stem the tide.

The global trade in illegal wildlife is valued at between $8 billion and $10 billion a year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In 2012, poachers killed an estimated 22,000 elephants across the African continent. Last year, they killed more than a thousand rhinos in South Africa alone, compared with just 13 in 2007. The market for the slaughtered animals is mainly in Asia, where the keratin in rhino horn has long been prized for its (scientifically unsubstantiated) medicinal value. In January, two rhino horns were intercepted by customs officials in Prague before they could make their way to Southeast Asia; the black market value of the pair was estimated at $360,000.

Last year, these worrisome trend lines prompted a novel response by conservationists: hold a contest. The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge aims to decrease the cost of developing and producing small drones and to increase their role as benevolent watchdogs. So far, 137 teams from 29 countries have signed up to design and construct the best, most cost-effective model. The winning entry will be announced this fall at South Africa’s Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa and the site of many brutal, and even deadly, poaching-related battles in recent years.

The UAV Challenge is in good company. In 2012, equipped with a $5 million grant from Google, the World Wildlife Fund set out to find new ways of combating poachers. In field tests conducted last fall in two Namibian national parks, the organization came to the conclusion that “while no technology is a silver bullet, UAVs really did add a number of key strengths for ranger patrolling,” according to Crawford Allan, head of the fund’s wildlife crime technology project. “UAVs have multiple applications, like monitoring wildlife and detecting breaks in fencing, as well as tracking poachers.”

A critical question, Allan admits, is whether cash-strapped conservation organizations can afford UAVs. At present, even the most bare-bones prototypes cost between $20,000 and $30,000; one of the UAV Challenge’s goals is to bring that cost down. Educating rangers on proper use is another goal. “If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing,” he says, “you could fly a drone straight into the face of a cliff.” Training will have to be a major part of any UAV-based system, he adds. “It’s a learning curve for everyone.”

Poachers, fortunately, are likely to grasp the potential of drones intuitively. Allan says that one of the technology’s biggest benefits will be its deterrent effect. Just knowing—or even suspecting—that UAVs are hovering up there in the night sky, he says, will probably be enough to make many of the bad guys decide to stay home. 

This article was originally posted in Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth.

--------

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Ivory Traders Arrested in Indonesia 

Labradors Trained to Detect Illegally Trafficked Wildlife Products

NBA Athletes Launch Campaign Against Ivory and Rhino Horn Poaching

--------

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Visible satellite image of Tropical Storm Kyle and Tropical Storm Josephine as of 9:10 a.m. EDT Saturday, August 15, 2020. RAMMB / CIRA / Colorado State University

By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.

The record-busy 2020 Atlantic hurricane season brought another addition to its bevy of early-season storms at 5 p.m. EDT August 14, when Tropical Storm Kyle formed off the coast of Maryland.

Read More Show Less
The Ocean Cleanup

By Ute Eberle

In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.

Read More Show Less
Feeding an orphaned bear. Tom MacKenzie / USFWS

By Hope Dickens

Molly Craig's day begins with feeding hungry baby birds at 6 a.m. The birds need to be fed every 15 minutes until 7 at night. If she's not feeding them, other staff at the Fox Valley Wildlife Center in Elburn, Illinois take turns helping the hungry orphans.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Douglas Broom

"Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people," said former U.S. president, Franklin Roosevelt.

Read More Show Less
A bald eagle flies over Lake Michigan. KURJANPHOTO / iStock / Getty Images Plus

A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.

Read More Show Less
The peloton ride passes through fire-ravaged Fox Creek Road in Adelaide Hills, South Australia, during the Tour Down Under cycling event on January 23, 2020. Brenton Edwards / AFP / Getty Images

A professional cycling race in Australia is under attack for its connections to a major oil and gas producer, the Guardian reports.

Read More Show Less

Trending

UQ study lead Francisca Ribeiro inspects oysters. The study of five different seafoods revealed plastic in every sample. University of Queensland

A new study of five different kinds of seafood revealed traces of plastic in every sample tested.

Read More Show Less