The conservation of African megafauna is an immense challenge complicated by political instability, economic strife, and an expanding global demand for illicit wildlife products. Despite concerted efforts by a multitude of conservationists, ecologists, and local people, many of the wonderful and charismatic species of sub-Saharan Africa are declining. While African megafauna face a myriad of threats, poaching is the preeminent cause of mortality, particularly for African elephants and rhinoceroses.
African elephants and rhinos, species that once epitomized success in wildlife conservation, have experienced immense declines in the 21st century, largely due to poaching:
- For African elephants, a continent-wide survey of plains elephants found a population decrease of 30% from 2007 to 2014, corresponding to a loss of 144,000 individuals.
- Rhinos (composed of two extant species: the southern white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros) have experienced large increases in poaching in South Africa over the past seven years (see figure below).
- The black rhino, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, experienced a 98% decline between 1960 and 1995 due to poaching, but have subsequently recovered to an estimated population of around 5,000 individuals. The southern white rhino is now numbered at around 20,000 individuals, after being reduced to fewer than 100 individuals by the early 20th century. Regardless of past conservation success however, the large recent losses due to increased poaching pressures are huge impacts to the total population of each species.
- The northern white rhino, another species, was declared functionally extinct in 2011, after the population crashed due to poaching.
WHY IS POACHING DIFFICULT TO FIGHT?
Poaching occurs frequently on protected lands, despite the efforts of paramilitary anti-poaching rangers. It is difficult to stop for a myriad of reasons. Poachers work in small teams, and know the landscape they work in, so they can often infiltrate protected areas without being detected. Furthermore, as many protected areas are large, anti-poaching operations have to cover an immense area, which leads to gaps in protection. As rhinos are often solitary animals (particularly males), populations are often dispersed, making the simultaneous protection of each animal difficult.
ENTER THE DRONE
There is a new hope in the fight against the illegal poaching of African megafauna: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more colloquially, “drones”. Over the past two decades, drone technology and applications have proliferated tremendously. Within the context of African landscapes, drones have the potential to track the location of individual animals, detect poachers, and inform counter-poaching operations by rangers.
One of the greatest benefits of drones is their ability to carry a diversity of payloads, which are modular, and hence interchangeable. Infrared sensors can detect heat signatures of animals or humans at night, strobes can be used to illuminate poachers, magnetic sensors may be used to detect the presence of weapons, and sound recorders can detect gunfire, determine its location, and ascertain weapon profiles.
Perhaps the most promising operation to date is AirShepherd, which has achieved over 6,000 flight hours over 4,000 missions, across three countries of operation. Air Shepherd uses fixed-wing UAVs that fly exclusively at night for up to five hours, and have the groundbreaking feature of being able to fly beyond the line-of-sight of the operator. The company reported that in one area in which previously 19 rhinos were killed per month, there have been no deaths for six months after flights were initiated.
Another initiative is the WWF Crime Technology Project, funded by a $5 million Google Global Impact Award, which aims to “harness technological innovation to stop conservation crime.” This program is a multi-faceted, and employs a suite of technologies to combat poaching. In addition to employing drones, the program features the use of ground-based infrared spotters and virtual radar fences to detect poachers, as well as SMART, a ranger patrol analysis software program.
Unfortunately, at this time, drones are not a “magic bullet” in the fight against illegal poaching; the technology has limitations.
Drones have a limited flight time, which complicates coordinating their use with anti-poaching activities on the ground. The actual flight range of most drones has generally been restricted to the line-of-sight of the operator, though as mentioned above, this is changing. Also, drones are relatively difficult to operate, requiring an experienced technician to operate them effectively. Drones also require someone to monitor data as it is being collected, typically in real time.
The demanding conditions of the African savannah also poses challenges to the sensors mounted on the drones. For example, some trials found that high temperatures in the some study areas made for too many variations in temperature within the image, making the detection of targets difficult.
Furthermore, some governments have become wary about non-governmental organizations operating drones within their territory altogether.
THE FLIGHTPATH AHEAD
There are many brilliant and hardworking people working on the limitations of drones, to improve the effectiveness of the technology in limiting poaching. It is important to remember that the technology is in its infancy, both in terms of technology and application, so it is exciting to think of what the future could hold in store.
For example, there are current efforts to move toward automatic detection of poachers. Recent research in the US has yielded SPOT, the Systemic POacher deTector, an application which automatically detects poachers and animals from drone-derived infrared imagery in real time. Automated drone flight is also being developed, by companies such as Airobotics, which allows drones to fly on preprogrammed routes without a pilot, thereby reducing the costs of labor and training, and improving logistics. The combination of automated flight and poacher detection technologies together could yield an immensely powerful tool in the fight against illegal poaching in Africa.
However, drones aren’t always used by the “good guys.” This was discovered by US and Iraqi forces during the 2016 Battle of Mosul, in which the Islamic State dropped ordinance using small, commercially available quadcopters. It is conceivable that as the price point of drone and sensor technology drops, poachers could employ these technologies to detect and target wildlife, which would necessitate counteractive measures.
– By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Sean Feagan
Photo by Cliffspiration from Wikimedia