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Drones Are Flying Above Rhinos and Elephants, But It's Not Yet Clear They Help

As drones hit the sky in countries such as Nepal, Mozambique, and South Africa, experts are wondering: Will it matter?
Image: Sandra Fenley/Wikimedia

In recent months, wildlife preservation agencies, park rangers, and, in some cases, national armies have turned to unmanned aircraft to help them track increasingly sophisticated wildlife traffickers. But as drones hit the sky in countries such as Nepal, Mozambique, and South Africa, experts are wondering: Will it matter?

Tuesday, at an event discussing drones in Washington, D.C., World Wildlife Fund President Carter Roberts discussed some of the challenges countries trying to combat poachers are facing.


"The bad guys are extremely sophisticated, they have night vision goggles, helicopters, plenty of funding and resources," he said. "We need to up our game to combat what they're doing."

A big part of that strategy is enhanced technology. As UAVs have become cheaper and more capable, conservationists have decided it's time to bring on the drones. Last year, Google awarded the WWF a $5 million grant to expand its drone program, which is already operating in Nepal.

But better technology hasn't always led to a decline in poaching, as Roberts explained Tuesday. Better technology sometimes just means sinking a lot of money into ineffective tactics.

For example, two years ago, WWF tagged a tiger with a $10,000 satellite collar that would allow the organization to track it as it was reintroduced into the wild in Nepal.

"We watched him move through the wild, and then it stopped moving," Roberts said. "That's the point where we went into the field. The collar was there, but the tiger, by this point, is probably in a bottle of wine being used in China in some celebratory feast."

With drones, law enforcement can get real-time video of poaching. Whether it can actually do anything about it is another question altogether.

"The places we're talking about using these are extremely remote. They're generally unpopulated. There's a place in Nepal that has the world's tallest grasses, that are impenetrable unless you're moving through the area on the back of an elephant," he said.

From C. Vermeulen et. al's study of UAVs and elephants in PLoS ONE.

In other words, it's possible law enforcement might get some pretty pictures of animals getting killed and abducted without catching poachers at all.

In other places, however, drones have already proven to be an important tool for those fighting poaching. In South Africa, which is currently dealing with record levels of rhino poaching, even the military has gotten involved.

Crawford Allan, North America Director of TRAFFIC, an organization that tracks poaching worldwide, says unmanned aircraft have played a direct role in a conflict that has quickly escalated to be more warlike than you'd expect.

"The South African military is using military-level [drone] surveillance to detect poachers. I know there have been interceptions, I know there have been killings of poachers in firefights and, to a degree, these [drones] have helped," Allan said. "The South African government is keeping it very quiet because of the nature of their operations."

But while the South Africa is using highly sophisticated drones and military force, WWF drones can only fly for about an hour, and they rarely have an entire military behind them. Whether their drone program works at all remains to be seen--the drones haven't yet directly led to any arrests and the program is still in a general testing phase, Allan said.

"We're trying to experiment in areas that have a realistic threat of poaching but in places where it's not as intense as in South Africa, which deals with poaching every single day," he said.

Are the places too remote?

"I think in some cases there's a risk of that, but our job is make sure that doesn't happen," Allan said.

Roberts said the WWF is working closely with governments all around the world to make sure drones eventually lead to some real progress against poachers.

"We do not just want to document the demise of nature," he said. "We want to inform decision makers, to make sure they're getting the information in real time so we're not just writing another sad story."