Conservation Drones 10 04 2014
Image: Wildlife Protection Solutions

Got a security or surveillance problem? Get a drone. They're patrolling the west and east coasts of Africa looking for pirates, searching for wreckage from the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and they'll be flying over the World Cup stadiums in Brazil this summer.

Conservationists are also embracing the technology, partly to keep an eye on wildlife, but mainly to tackle poachers. Two weeks ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service announced plans to introduce unmanned aerial vehicles into Tsavo National Park. Further north, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, just outside the Kenyan town of Nanyuki, is testing its own drone. 

And drones are patrolling over other parts of Africa, too. Last year, they were deployed in South Africa's iconic Kruger National Park, as well as in the adjoining Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Elsewhere in the world, they’ve been flying over forests in Borneo to keep an eye on orangutans, counting migrating sandhill cranes around Staten Island in the US and monitoring dugongs (a relative of the manatee) in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

These drones are not the same unmanned aerial vehicles that have been flying over cities, upsetting civil rights activists and buzzing German Chancellor Angela Merkel during election rallies. Nor are they the weapons-grade drones that military forces send into battle to locate (and sometimes blow up) well-hidden enemies. These drones are designed specifically with wildlife conservation in mind.

"Out in the bush there’s no landing point and no runway," says Eric Schmidt from Wildlife Protection Solutions (WPS), a drone-making company in the US. "A ranger needs something small that loads in the back of a truck or a backpack. Something they can launch in five minutes. It’s no good trying to adapt a drone designed for urban flying."

WPS's Avenger drone provides real-time video and thermal imaging feeds. It flies autopilot, or via remote control, for two hours before refuelling, on either gas or electricity. Ol Pejeta’s Aerial Ranger is also designed for novice pilots. The pilot clicks on the desired location on Google Earth and the drone flies there. Another click and the drone returns to its launch point and parachutes safely to the ground.

Monitoring Dashboard Drone 10 04 2014
A drone monitoring dashboard. Image: Wildlife Protection Solutions

Conservationists in Africa realise they need to do something different in order to win the fight against poachers. Between January and the end of March this year, Kenya had lost 51 elephants and 18 rhinos to poachers. Last year, the figures were 302 and 59. South Africa lost 146 rhinos in the first two months of 2014 alone.

"People in China and South East Asia are prepared to pay big money for rhino horn and elephant ivory," says Detective Inspector Nevin Hunter, head of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit. "That’s what attracts the criminals."

The root of the problem? Economics ... in one of its basest and most vile forms. For impoverished people in Africa who turn to poaching, the chance of a big pay day trumps the risk of getting fined, imprisoned or shot. The odds are good. The wilderness is big. There’s a lot of cover. And many poaching syndicates are turning to technology, night-vision goggles and thermal imagers to outwit the rangers. That's where the drones help to even out the odds.

Aerial View Of Rhinos Drones 10 04 2014
Keeping tabs on wildlife from above is just part of their function. Drones also help authorities spot signs that poachers are active in a particular area. Image: Wildlife Protection Solutions

Schmidt explains that attaching cameras to drones enables the drone’s operator to more quickly see signs that poachers are active in a particular area: cut fences, trucks following known animal tracks, or the colour blue – which, in the bush, invariably means a pair of jeans. The operators can then let the park rangers know there are poachers about, before it’s too late.

Schmidt adds that drones also act as a visible deterrent to poachers. "Send them out just before sunset, the time poachers tend to be most active," he says.

It’s still early days and drone technology is still being refined to meet wildlife conservation needs. WPS are working on software that will automatically detect signs that poachers are about, without the need for a human to be constantly watching. In Indonesia, Schmidt has attached multi-spectral cameras to drones so operators can see through the canopy to the forest floor below. University of Maryland scientists have designed software that uses historical data of encounters between wildlife poachers in a certain area to program drones to fly over known trouble spots.

Alasdair Davies from the Zoological Society of London wants to see more research into how very small drones might refuel themselves from the natural environment. "This would enable drones to operate autonomously, for longer, in remote places," he says. For the same reason, Schmidt is developing solar-panelled drones.

Schmidt says that drones are at their most effective when part of an integrated security system that also connects rangers’ radios and mobile phones to fixed ground cameras: everything working together to identify problems and respond appropriately. Rory Young, a ranger and anti-poaching activist from Zambia, believes that skilled local trackers can carry out this type of surveillance more efficiently than flying drones.

"Children in rural villages in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa grow up tracking goats and cattle and even wild animals," Young wrote recently in the Huffington Post. "They have highly developed skills of observation and an innate ability to read sign."

Young has a point. Local trackers aren’t as expensive as a drone. Nor do they require months of field tests, during which time poachers are out there killing animals. Trackers can’t, however, cover as much ground as quickly as a drone, and the risk to the individual is great should poachers realise they're being followed.

Hunter warns that although drones might be helping authorities clamp down on poachers, a hi-tech security and surveillance system alone won’t beat the criminals. "Poaching will always be a problem while rhino horn, ivory and other illegal animal products have a high commercial value," he says. "We have to convince people in China and South East Asia to think about wildlife conservation, not just their own lifestyles."

Top header image: USFWS Headquarters, Flickr