Africa: How drones can save wildlife

Drones, which are essentially remote controlled aircraft fitted with cameras, sensors, and other technology, are increasingly being deployed by environmental groups and governments to aid conservation efforts. In Belize, for example, drones are used to monitor illegal fishing activities over a wide stretch of ocean and shoreline, which would be too resource intensive for boats and crews to do. This is seen as a cost effective way to patrol areas that the Belize government might not be able to reach (you can read more about that here), and they have added two drones to their coastal patrol.

As drones can be fitted with a variety of technology – besides cameras – their applications are interesting and yet to be fully explored. The non-profit group ConservationDrones.org is a champion of drones, and has built craft that can conduct surveillance, detect habitat damage, map areas under threat, or count populations of animals in remote locations. Using different kinds of cameras, such as thermal imaging, gives drones even greater potential, and the New York Times reports that they have been used “to study caribou and their effects on vegetation in Greenland, to combat poaching in Nepal and to conduct other conservation work in Madagascar, Gabon and other countries”.

Drones are also being deployed in Africa, with Kenya and South Africa reported to be using them to fight elephant and rhino poachers. The Guardian reported on a particularly successful pilot scheme launched in Kenya, which saw poaching in the targeted area reduced by 96% – an incredible turnaround, though exact numbers were not specified. After this success, Kenya now plans to deploy drones in all 52 of her national parks. The drones used in Kenya use radio frequencies to monitor the landscape and the movement of animals, and will provide rangers with 24-hour surveillance once operational.

South Africa also uses drones for surveillance in Kruger National Park, as well as army and special force soldiers, with helicopters on-call 24 hours a day to respond to incidents. The Kenya Wildlife Service also partners with Interpol, other local governments facing poaching problems, and domestic agencies such as the police and intelligence service. Resources are clearly there, whether in South Africa or Kenya, but as the hunting continues the use of drones should provide another resource in the fight against poaching.

As with many new technologies, the range of applications of drones is not yet fully realised, and their limitations not yet fully understood. Drones themselves can play an important role in surveillance or providing data, but it is also this use of data, and how drones fit in to surveillance plans that are important. If poachers are spotted by a drone in an inaccessible location, how quickly can rangers respond?Providing data and mapping out the movements of animals over time, could make it easier to predict where elephants or rhinos will be at certain times during the day, thus anticipating where poachers are likely to be too.

But all of this requires data to be constantly inputted, not only by the drones themselves, but also by rangers on the ground, reporting where animals have been spotted, breaks in the fence, tracks, the location of favoured food, and so on. Having that level of data on the ground, coupled with the capabilities of the Army or Special Forces, would create a very strong deterrent for poachers, and a safer environment for the animals.

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