Can Drones Save the Elephants?

Antipoaching teams in Africa and Asia are getting assistance from unmanned aerial vehicles.

This week, 89 African elephants in southern Chad were slaughtered for their ivory tusks, the worst such incident since the killing of 300 elephants a year ago in Cameroon.

To stop the massacre of these stately beasts, conservation groups are fighting poachers with eye-in-the-sky drones. These unmanned aerial vehicles -- introduced with the help of local researchers and Western firms such as Google -- are giving park rangers new tools in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade of not only ivory from elephants and rhinos but also hides from tigers and other big cats.

The World Wildlife Fund will start testing a new drone surveillance program in Namibia next month that aims to coordinate data from the air and ground to give park rangers an edge over poachers, according to Crawford Allan, director of the Fund's TRAFFIC North America project.

"It will be a great advantage to protect both wildlife and the rangers," Allan said. "We will know where the animals are, the (drone) relays the location to ground control, and you can mobilize rangers on the ground to get in between the animals and form a shield. We see this as an umbrella of technology."

Crawford said it's the first time that such technology has been used in the field. It's a three-year project at two sites in Africa (the second is being negotiated) and another two in Asia. The project is funded by a $5 million grant from Google Global Impact Awards. Eventually the goal is to use cellphone (GSM) technology to connect to the drone flights.

A group called Conservation Drones has also been working with independent researchers at 15 to 20 sites around the globe to help them track wildlife better and develop information that could help them stop poaching. They have worked to monitor rhinos in a national park in Nepal and count orangutan nests in the dense jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Using high-definition cameras and GPS-mounted navigation software, drones can cover a much larger amount of territory than ground-based crews, said Serge Wich, professor of primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University. "To do several line transects to count orangutang nests would take us three days," he said. "A drone can do it in 20 minutes."

Drones can also be used to spot smoke from poachers' campfires and work at night to help prevent surprise encounters between rangers and poachers, or rangers and each other. "Friendly fire" incidents have actually led to gunfights and deaths between rangers who were working at night.

Perhaps most importantly, the new generation of lightweight and easy-to-operate drones are inexpensive enough for cash-strapped African governments to afford.

Wich is testing one built by a Swiss firm that only costs a few thousand dollars. The drawback is it only has a flight time of about 45 minutes and needs a landing area of at least 100 square meters.

The poachers in Chad were actually part of an armed militia group of 40 to 50 men on horseback who were conducting raids to ship ivory to Asian markets.

Stopping that kind of force would need a much bigger drone with a longer flight time, and a much bigger military force on the ground, Allan said.

He hopes Western nations may see the value of protecting both wildlife, as well as the borders, of nations from armed terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, whose presence has grown recently in parts of Africa.

"You would need several vehicles at a million dollars each," Allan said. "Not just to protect elephants, but to protect their borders from these raids by these militants. That's a stronger incentive for combined use."