WASHINGTON, August 7, 2013 — There is a new tool to combat illegal poachers in Africa: the drone. As poaching operations become more sophisticated and well-funded, conservationists and park rangers must keep up to ensure the survival of many species of rhino, elephant and big cat.
It is estimated that every year 10,000 to 25,000 elephants are killed for their ivory tusks in Tanzania, in South Africa one rhino is killed every 11 hours. The wildlife trafficking industry is currently worth over $10 billion and does not show signs of shrinking.
Demand for products made from endangered animals is concentrated in Asia, where black market prices for rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory have recently reached record highs, fueling poaching. In South Africa alone, rhino deaths have risen by 3,000 percent since 2007. One of the country’s largest national parks, the Kruger, has lost over 50 percent of its rhino population since 2010.
Equipped with night vision goggles, helicopters, state-of the art dart guns, and high-powered weapons, poachers are difficult to track and apprehend. Due to the lucrative markets for products made from animal parts, poachers are often better equipped than the local military, police, and conservation groups.
“Many of these guys are former Mozambican rebel fighters who come over the 250-mile border to the east,” said Chris Miser, creator of the Falcon drone currently used in some South African conservancies. “They’re carrying R5 assault rifles that you can only get from the South African military. They booby-trap rhino carcasses. Some suspects stopped recently were carrying AK47s but also had bodyguards with them.”
With increasingly high stakes, African governments and conservationists are constantly battling to keep up.
In 2012, Google donated $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund to test drone technology to combat illegal poaching in Nepal and Namibia, with an eye for developing technology that is inexpensive to produce and easy to use and repair.
In comments to Washington Times reporters and editors in late July, Tanzanian Ambassador to the U.S. Liberata Mumala said that on his visit to Africa last month President Obama discussed the possibility of using unmanned, unarmed aircraft to help the country’s park rangers combat elephant poachers. The White House has not confirmed the comments.
Similarly, Ol Pejeta reserve in Kenya purchased a drone in January from Airware, an American company, for $70,000.
Ol Pejeta is representative of the problems facing most African reserves, and how drones could prove to be valuable tools in the fight against poachers. With 110 rhinos on the grounds, Ol Pejeta is home to four of the seven last-known remaining northern white rhinos in the world. With over 90,000 acres, the reserve employs only 190 rangers. Of these, only 40 are armed.
“Poaching has reached pretty epic levels, most notably in rhinos and elephants,” said Robert Breare, strategy and innovation specialists al Ol Pejeta. “One of the problems when you have thousands of acres of wilderness is that it’s near impossible to be at all places at once, especially when you only have a handful of rangers patrolling. What this does is put an ‘eye in the sky’ to monitor things we just can’t see from the ground.”
In South Africa, home to a majority of the world’s rhinos, researchers from the University of Maryland led by economist Tom Snitch are using the same technology used in Afghanistan and Iraq to predict IED bombers to predict where poachers are likely to strike.
Snitch is also attempting to solve the problem of using costly military grade drones by replacing them with civilian models like Chris Miser’s Falcon drones: short-range, easy to operate, and with a relatively low price tag of $23,000 per drone, including the cost of a thermal camera.
The U.S. is also getting involved, even though it may not be by sending drones to Tanzania. Last December then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upgraded wildlife trafficking from a conservation issue to a national security threat. The decision was made after reports that groups like the Renamo rebels in Mozambique, Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army, and the Shabaab militants in Somalia were funded in part by poaching.
“I think [drones] will work to a degree,” said Julian Rademeyer, a South African journalist and author of Killing for Profit, “but really, nothing beats a well-equipped ranger. Drones come in handy because they can spot movement—they’re an intelligence-gathering tool. But you need to keep in mind the size of these places. Drones can help you know where to look, but when it comes down to it, manpower on the ground is still the key to stopping this.”
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