A watchful eye on wildlife

High Above: Africa is in the midst of a poaching crisis. Now, conservationists are testing drones to help track and stop poachers in the continent

A watchful eye on wildlife

Night has fallen at Liwonde National Park in Malawi, but the trespassers are clearly visible. Three hundred feet in the air, a thermal camera attached to a BatHawk drone tracks their boat, a black sliver gliding up the luminous gray Shire river. “They’re breaking the law by coming into the park,” said Antoinette Dudley, one of the drone’s operators, pointing to her computer screen.

More than two miles from the boat, she and her partner, Stephan De Necker, are seated in a Land Cruiser that serves as their command centre. A monitor attached to the driver’s seat displays the drone’s vitals, and another behind the passenger’s seat streams live video from the camera, operated with an old PlayStation console. “Let’s give them a scare,” said Stephan. With the tap of a few keys, he switches on the drone’s navigation lights and sends it beelining towards the boat. The reaction is instantaneous: The boat makes a U-turn, high-tailing it out of the park.

Africa is in the midst of a profound poaching crisis: The continent’s elephant population declined by 30% from 2007-2014, much of it because of poaching. At least 1,338 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2015 alone. Criminals are becoming increasingly militarised in their tactics, and efforts to stop them have had little success. In August 2015, the Malawi Department of National Parks enlisted the help of African Parks, a non-profit that specialises in rehabilitating struggling protected areas. Since taking over operations in Liwonde, the group has confiscated upward of 18,000 illegal snares, made over 100 arrests, installed more than 60 miles of electric fencing and removed 261 elephants to another reserve.

Using drones to track
But African Parks also has embarked on an unusual high-tech experiment, calling in a drone team from South Africa. With funding from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), including a $5 million grant from Google, drones are being tested in the first systematic evaluation of their potential to combat poachers. UAV & Drone Solutions (UDS), the company that employs Antoinette and Stephan, is the first licensed drone operator in Africa, a certification that permits the company to fly drones up to 15 miles away and to operate at night — crucial advantages, given that the vast majority of poachers are active after dark and few parks are able to carry out effective nocturnal patrols.

Conservationists failed to do the homework needed to see if drones were suitable for their needs, said Nir Tenenbaum, director of Wildeas, a conservation technology consultancy. “So many groups want technology to solve all their problems, but usually they don’t understand the tech,” he said. Government officials haven’t helped. In Namibia, trial flights and training undertaken by the WWF, supported by the Google grant, were cut short when the government suspended the use of drones. Other nations have banned unmanned aerial vehicles entirely or have strictly limited their use. Only recently has that begun to change. In 2015, South Africa established some of the first formal drone legislation, and other countries have started making limited exceptions for their use.

The Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd programme, along with the South Africa-based Peace Parks Foundation and the WWF’s Google grant, have covered about half UDS’ $100,000 monthly operational costs. Despite these resources, Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, the company’s co-founder, has discovered that drones are far from the blanket solution everyone had hoped for. “I am convinced that we are onto something, but we’re only beginning to understand how this tool can be used effectively,” he said. “The challenge now is determining how we integrate drones into existing anti-poaching operations.”

Challenges ahead
So far, no arrests of poachers have been made solely based on drone surveillance, and pilots have spotted poachers only a handful of times. Drone teams often don’t get ground support in the form of rangers able to follow up on leads, and must frequently fly without guidance on where poachers might be, according to Otto. Data analysis has also been a challenge. Currently, drone operators must watch live video feed to detect intruders and it is all too easy to miss the poachers. “It could be numerous reasons — the operator looks away for 20 seconds, or goes to grab a cup of coffee and misses it,” said Cedric Coetzee, general manager for rhino security at Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife in South Africa.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that conservationists do not know how to most effectively put anti-poaching drones to use, because there have been no rigorous long-term evaluations. South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research conducted a two-month trial with UDS and concluded that the technology is “a remarkable support tool,” but officials have yet to release the data supporting those findings.

Most evidence supporting drones is anecdotal: Cedric said he has seen a significant reduction in park incursions when and where drones fly, but added that other factors could have been at play. Drones may deter trespassers, he said, but they may simply go elsewhere in the reserve. WWF plans to tease out the answers to these questions by evaluating the drones’ effectiveness against poachers in Liwonde.

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