How Drones Can Help Nab Poachers and Save Endangered Wildlife

I snapped the rhinoceros trio pictured during a trip through South Africa’s Kruger National Park. What I didn’t realize at the time is that they are prime targets for poachers, even in so-called protected national park land like Kruger. Hundreds of rhinos are butchered each year by poachers who kill them for their valuable horns.

Why are the horns so valuable? Although scientific proof is questionable, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) explains, “rhino horns are highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets as a treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, and fevers.”

Just how valuable are they? A large rhino horn can fetch as much as $250,000 in underground markets, according to the BBC.

The sad thing is, to poachers, rhinos are worth more dead than alive, even if the only thing they take is its horn.

Although both black and white rhino populations are growing healthily overall, some subspecies are still listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The WWF paints a gloomy picture of highly profitable and organized international poaching criminal syndicates who deploy advanced technologies ranging from night vision scopes, silenced weapons, darting equipment and helicopters to carry out their mission.

According to Dr. Joseph Okori, head of WWF’s African Rhino Programme, “The African rhino is under serious threat from poachers who have intensified their search of rhino for their horns since 2007, driven by growing market demands in Asia.” He believes, “The rhino poaching trend is extremely worrying. If it is not stopped, the world could lose African rhinos. This is a tragedy we do not want to contemplate.”

What if there was a way to track poachers without them knowing? But instead of catching them in the act, do so before the act is committed, saving rhinos in the process.

An international competition aims to inspire technologically savvy activists to build inexpensive, easy-to-fly drones to be used for wildlife conservation. The goal: to stop rhino poachers in their tracks.

What exactly is a drone? Strictly speaking, it’s an unmanned aircraft that can fly autonomously—that is, without a human in control, though Scientific American points out it’s a bit more complex than that.

Over 130 teams from 29 different countries on six continents are participating in what’s called the Wildlife Conservation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge. The goal: to build unmanned aircraft that can scan Kruger National Park for poaching activity and map routes for the rangers to apprehend traffickers.

Scott “LB” Williams, Director General of Reserve Protection Agency, sets the stage for this contest:

It’s a war zone at this point. The value of a rhino horn is worth more than ten times the value of the rhino alive. Poachers are coming in, they’re well-armed, most of them are coming in in teams now, and they’re coming in with assault rifles, and they don’t have the law holding them back.

The idea behind using a drone for counter-poaching, as Williams calls it, is “to get out there and try to detect the poachers before they get to the animals.”

Aliyah Pandolfi, Founder of Wildlife Conservation’s UAV Challenge, explains how it works:

Little tiny computers and sensors on board the drones collect data. If there are poachers in the park, how many are there, where are they located, what types of weapons are they carrying, what’s their proximity to the animals, and also, what’s the best route for a ranger to go there and stop the poachers?

Drones May Not Be the Only Answer

The challenge for rangers and others hoping to protect animals from poachers is that they have very vast areas to cover. That’s where drones could come in quite handy. “With a drone, you can cover half a day’s walking in a matter of minutes,” claims Williams.

Another challenge? Confronting poachers is dangerous business for rangers. As the BBC reports, most experts agree that drones are not the whole answer:

Even when the poachers have been located, GPS-tracked rangers still have the dangerous task of arresting or seeing off the gangs who are often heavily armed and funded by organised crime syndicates. About 1,000 rangers have been killed over the last 10 years trying to protect wildlife, the Game Rangers Association of Africa estimates.

While drones may not be the only answer to combating poaching, drone technology is likely to play a significant part in the fight against poaching, but only as part of an integrated, ground-to-air tracking and surveillance system.

On why they started the Wildlife Conservation’s UAV Challenge, Pandolfi points out that she would like to see the rhino poaching numbers go down drastically. She believes that a challenge like this can be a great way to motivate people. “If we have technology we can use it to protect the world we live in.”

Not the First Time Drones Have Been Used for Conservation

The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge is not the first instance of drones being used to aid conservation efforts. Last year Care2 shared news about activists with plans to use drones to nab illegal badger hunters, and as KTVU reports, more and more drone makers, such as San Francisco-based company Airware, are seeing an opportunity for their unmanned vehicles to patrol, protect and preserve animals that are in danger of extinction.

National Geographic points out that drones are already being used as wildlife police, scoping out poachers in Kenya and Nepal, and in Belize, drones are saving threatened fish populations by finding vessels that are over their catch limits, fishing without permits, or in restricted waters.

In December 2012 WWF announced that it received a $5 million grant from Google to go towards state-of-the-art technology to protect tigers, rhinos and elephants in Asia and Africa.

WWF President and CEO Carter Roberts explained: “We face an unprecedented poaching crisis. The killings are way up. We need solutions that are as sophisticated as the threats we face. This pushes the envelope in the fight against wildlife crime.”

Perhaps one of the most promising aspects of using drone technology to combat animal poaching: just like poachers who may not detect drones overhead, neither do the animals, leaving them undisturbed.

Most commonly associated as a weapon of war, could drones become an effective weapon in the fight against poachers? Share your thoughts in the comments. In the meantime, teams are working hard to find out. The Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge winners, to be announced in November, will see their designs tested in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

Photo credit: Tex Dworkin

104 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

Don't worry about the dangers of arresting the poachers - just shoot to kill. No problems. I don't know if there could be any convincing asians that the rhino horn is not medicinal. Old folklore beliefs are hard to change. Drones equipped with some type of rifle would be best. Anything bigger could harm the wildlife in the process of offing the poachers. Whatever it takes to save them needs to be done.

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Lisbeth Alvarado Sanchez

Anything that can help stop this monsters is of great use. Poachers and all the people who are involved in the killing of this magnificent animals should be sent to prison for life. Strong economic sanctions should be put to the Asian countries that are promoting this genocide. If this is not done rhinos, elephants, tigers and other species will simply be a memory.

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silvia meiring
Silvia meiring2 years ago

Drones are a very good start, but a lot more is needed to save these majestic creatures. Making people change their beliefs is another step in the right direction, but this will prove very difficult, as those who fuel the market with their demands, are like race horses with blinkers on. The will never see the bigger picture!! The road ahead is still very long, but even small steps like drones, is a step in the right direction!

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Muff-Anne York-Haley

Asians would eat horse poop if they thought it was medicinal! It's so sad that there seems to be no conscience or accountability for Asians! Everything is about what they can cram in their faces whether it's endangered or not is of no consequence to them!!!

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Manuela C.
Manuela C2 years ago

Wharever helps! We must protect wild animals from poachers.

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s g.
Sandy G2 years ago

Drones are a great start!

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Diane K.
Diane K2 years ago

Maybe if Rhino horns could be proven to be of no value in Asian medicine or do not help any medical problems, the demand would go down. If the monetary value is reduced, then the Poachers would lose interest. Don't know if there is any real proof that Rhino horns are truly effective as treatment for illnesses, though. thanks

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Past Member
Past Member 2 years ago

True that drone strikes are not that precise, but it is a risk to take, because rhinos will anyway be killed. Fear of strikes might slow down the poaching. On the other hand, rangers have to be heavily armed and trained to kill. This is a war, against well structured criminal organizations For the helicopters: missiles surface-air to destroy them. However the problem is and will alway be money. Mafia has an endless source of income, not Kruger park or else. I believe those parks should open subscriptions and ask people in the world to help them, and every action or killing of poachers should be recorded and put on the Net, to inspire fear like, ISIS does!

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Stella Gambardella
Stella G2 years ago

Non ritengo giusto esporre i rangers e gli animali a rischio della vita, entrambi sono inermi e disarmati difronte ai bracconieri ben armati e disposti ad uccidere se qualcuno si frappone al loro guadagno. Droni sono i benvenuti, ma i rangers devono avere le armi all'altezza dei contrabbandieri, purtroppo siamo in guerra e il nemico non si fà scrupolo di uccidere.

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