In 2014, 1215 rhinos were killed in South Africa, a massive increase over the 333 poached in 2010. In 2011, the western black rhino was formally declared extinct, with poaching blamed as the major factor. The conservation group Save the Rhino fears that the same thing will happen to other rhinos, if current poaching trends continue.
On March 19th, South African National Parks, the conservation authority responsible for managing the country's national parks, announced that it was evaluating the use of various UAV technologies as an anti-poaching measure. "We expect the technology to improve our response time in dealing with incidents," SANParks board chair Kuseni Dlamini said in a release.
The argument for drones is pretty simple: In the vast open expanses and dense undergrowth of South Africa's wild lands, poachers can easily elude the authorities on the ground, especially with limited manpower. But if you can cheaply monitor known trouble spots from the air, rangers can be deployed and dispatched more efficiently to tackle potential problems. Authorities can also better monitor animal movements from the air, and photographs taken by drone camera might provide the evidence to secure a prosecution against a poacher.
Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, director of UAV&Drone Solutions, a South African drone company involved in SANParks' testing, explained that in most areas, rhino and elephants are largely unprotected at night.
"For 12 hours of darkness poachers can run about without risk," he said. "It's dangerous to fly aeroplanes and helicopters at night, but drones can use infrared cameras to monitor what's going on."
UAV&Drone Solutions technical director Rob Hannaford explained that anti-poaching drones need to be strong enough to carry surveillance equipment over long distances, agile enough to land and take off in the bush, and cheap enough so that a crash doesn't bankrupt the operation. The company has designed a portable 3D printer that can build new parts during operations should the drone get damaged.
"The visible policing aspect of drones is huge," Von Elgg added. "If we actually find a poacher that's great. But when we fly drones over an area the poachers no longer have a chance to run around with impunity at night. That's a great deterrent."
The big question at the moment is how anti-poaching drones will be regulated. South African National Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) are set to announce new rules governing the use of unmanned flying vehicles in South African airspace. They're expected to give the green light to conservationists who want to use drones to fight poachers.
In May 2014, the SACAA announced that flying unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras for commercial gain was against the law in South African airspace. SACAA stated that because there are no laws allowing for the commercial use of drones with cameras, outside of sport and recreation, it would need time to consider how best to regulate UAVs. Before that could happen, the agency needed to understand how drones are used, and in particular, the security and safety implications of their use.
The announcement affected newspapers, film crews, farmers and private security firms. It also hit conservation groups, many of which saw drones as the answer to fighting Africa's rhino and elephant poachers.
"It costs far less to employ a local tracker for a year than it does to buy a UAV"
Unfortunately, there's not too much difference between an anti-poaching UAV and the paparazzi drone that tried to film the late Nelson Mandela in hospital in June 2013. Privacy, security, and safety concerns—an inexperienced drone operator flying in a crowded area is risky—make regulating their use difficult. Currently, flying a drone in South African airspace illegally carries a maximum fine of R50,000 (roughly $4200) or 10 years in prison. With those penalties in place, the use of anti-poaching drones remains limited.
That might soon change. Towards the end of March of this year, SACAA submitted draft regulations to South African Minister of Transport Elizabeth Dipuo Peters that recommended drones used by commercial organizations, corporations and non-profit groups, which includes conservation groups, should be approved and registered.
SACAA wants all pilots to hold a license and even stricter regulations for drones used by hobbyists. Officials expect a government response to the draft proposals soon. Some conservation groups, it seems, are expecting the green light.
Not everyone agrees that drones are the way forward in the fight against poachers, however. Rory Young, a ranger and anti-poaching activist from Zambia, believes that skilled local trackers can carry out surveillance more efficiently.
"It costs far less to employ a local tracker for a year than it does to buy a UAV," he said, adding that employing locals builds goodwill, gets them onside against the poachers.
Dr. Bob Smith, an ecologist from the University of Kent, warns that using drones will alienate locals, if people feel that they are being spied upon as potential poachers. He argued that using drones to stop poaching makes great news headlines, but there's not yet any independent evidence that proves whether they work.
"Stopping poaching is a long-term, complicated process," he said. "It involves training and equipping field staff, developing intelligence networks and building effective legal systems. Drones are being sold as a quick technological fix but they could end up an expensive distraction."