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Drones Against Rhino Poachers

The high tech battle being fought in Africa to save the last white rhinos

Michael Cruickshank
Drones Against Rhino Poachers© 2017 Flickr - NZ Defence Force

In the heart of the African bush, a never ending battle is being fought, between park conservation rangers and poachers, over the lives of the last remaining rhinos and elephants. But this is no low key conflict. Fuelled by the multi-million dollar ivory smuggling market, poachers engage in heavily armed gunfights in order to continue their illegal trade. It has been estimated that in recent years, more that 1000 park rangers have been killed in the protection of these animals.

But now the rangers are getting help from an unlikely source: drones. Having already proved their utility in battlefields in the Middle East, providing both surveillance and fire support, the same technology is being deployed in Africa in order to provide rangers with an all-seeing eye in the sky.

UAV startup Airware has been working with Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in order to build a drone which is optimised for park rangers. Currently, the park contains some of the world’s last white rhinos, making them also a prime target for poachers, who kill them for their horns, sold as ivory or as traditional medicine in East Asia. In the last year they lost at least 50 rhinos to this threat.

Image: © 2014 Wikipedia

The drone which Airware has developed is being programmed with autonomous systems, enabling it to loiter over the park for extended periods of time. While it is in the air it can provide real time video feeds of the situation on the ground, from the viewpoint of fixed and gimbal mounted cameras. In addition, these can also use night vision to massively enhance the ability of rangers to monitor the park in the dead of the night.

As well as providing surveillance, in the event of a confrontation or firefight with poachers, the drone can be deployed in much the same way that similar UAVs would be used in Afghanistan or Iraq. In these situations it could be used in a tactical role, relaying people’s positions to the park rangers, helping them confront and defeat would be poachers, or indeed avoid deadly ambushes.

In addition to this, having a drone platform would provide rangers with a much simpler way of conducting park surveys. Previously only possible via plane, these expensive endeavours could not be undertaken regularly. With the aid of a drone, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy would be able to keep much better track of the numbers of animals it has, enabling them to better monitor potential poaching incidents.

While drones alone are not the silver bullet which will end illegal poaching, it may buy park rangers enough time to protect the last herds of endangered species, before attitudes towards these products change in Asia.

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