Africa has a new breed of wildlife ranger. In the skies above the continent’s national reserves and parks, surveillance drones are the latest weapon in the battle to combat poaching, a bloody trade that claims the lives of an estimated 35,000 African elephants a year. From the Kasigau wildlife corridor in Kenya, where elephants are protected from ivory-hunting gangs by just 100 field rangers, to rhinos in South Africa, drones are being deployed as ‘eyes in the sky’ to track and protect animals, and even herd them out of harm’s way.
Globally, the trade in wildlife products is thought by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to be the fifth-most profitable illicit trade in the world, worth some $10bn a year. “We face an unprecedented poaching crisis,” WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts has said. “The killings are way up. We need solutions that are as sophisticated as the threats we face.”
In 2012, WWF received $5m from Google to invest in a smart system to include drones, radio tags for animals, and software to identify and intercept poaching gangs. The money would ‘push the envelope in the fight against wildlife crime,’ Roberts said at the time.
Poachers are not the only problem being tackled using drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for myriad conservation projects, from tracking illegal fishing activities in Belize, home to one of the world’s largest coral reef systems, to monitoring seabird populations off the coast of Australia, to collecting data about caribou and their impact on vegetation in Greenland.
ConservationDrones.org, a small nonprofit that has drone projects in a dozen countries, has been a force in promoting their use in developing economies. The brainchild of Lian Pin, a conservation ecologist, and primate biologist Serge Wich, the nonprofit builds low-cost UAVs to support conservation groups in poorer countries, for whom commercially available drones are too expensive.
“Now we have a whole fleet of conservation drones built for different purposes,” Koh told the New York Times last year. The pair’s first prototype UAV cost less than $2,000. “There is so much we can do and need to do.”