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A South African Rhino Farmer Is Trying to Buy U.S. Drones to Fight Poachers

This year saw the rise of eco-drones.
Photo courtesy Carboafrica

As the worst year on record for rhino poaching in South Africa comes to a close, one rhino reserve founder is pushing for authorities to step up their surveillance game as they try to track poachers in South Africa's huge wildlife parks. And in this day and age, that means one thing: a proposed 30 Arcturus T-20 drones.

Clive Vivier, who co-founded the Zululand rhino reserve, was recently granted permission to buy the drones by the U.S. state department. He's now waiting on permission from local aviation regulators to move forward with his plan. With at least 650 animals killed this year, Vivier says more surveillance capability is urgent. As it stands, there's simply too much space for rangers to patrol on foot, as Vivier told the Guardian:

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Around 400 rhinos have been killed this year in the world-famous Kruger national park, which spans 2m hectares – impossible for a limited number of rangers to guard effectively. Vivier estimates it as the equivalent of a town with one policeman for every 100,000 houses, "all with the doors and windows and open and rhino horn inside".

The answer then, is to get smarter. From the story:

The answer, he believes, is the unmanned Arcturus T-20, which, with a 17ft wingspan, can fly for 16 hours without refuelling at a height of 15,000 feet. Its lack of noise and infrared camera would be invaluable for spotting poachers at night. "It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not," said Vivier, 65. "We can see the poacher but he can't see us. We're good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it's a needle in a haystack."

Vivier estimates that one drone would cost $300,000 for two years of flying, making the total project–10 for the Kruger park, and 20 for various other parks, according to the Guardian–cost around $4.5 million a year. Vivier's currently trying to raise the funds.

One place worth looking might be Google, who recently gave WWF $5 million for drones. And Vivier's not the only person trying to pump up South Africa's field surveillance. In November, the South African military was asked to help out with surveillance tech in the province of North West.

The simple truth is that rangers' jobs have become increasingly difficult and, more importantly, dangerous as poaching has become the province of better-organized groups that occasionally are straight-up militants. Add to that the fact that trying to quickly find and mobilize to stop anything in a wide-open game preserve is extraordinarily difficult, and you start to realize how urgent proper reconnaissance is.

And it's not just South Africa. Whether its booming efforts to use drones against the wildlife trade in Africa and Asia, to conservationists mapping orangutan populations in Borneo, to the NOAA using drones in Antarctica, 2012 has seen the rise of the eco-drone. I suppose that's one feel-good trickle-down from the United States' years and years of military drone development.