Drones Are Steering Elephants Out of Trouble in Tanzania

Inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles are proving to be an effective way to keep the giant animals from grazing on private farmland and putting themselves in danger.

Add elephant guardian to the list of jobs that can be occupied by drones.

It turns out, that for around $800 a pop, the kinds of small, unmanned aerial vehicles used by hobbyists excel at spooking elephants – just enough, anyway, to make them move out of areas that could spell trouble for them.

That's what a team from RESOLVE'sBiodiversity and Wildlife Solutions Program observed during field trials of the copters above farmlands in Africa's Serengeti and Tarangire national parks in Tanzania. Farmlands are trouble spots for elephants, since the giant creatures can quickly eat through crops vital to a farmer's livelihood. The farmers, in turn, either throw things at the elephants or try to scare them away with dicey, unsafe devices such as condoms filled with firecrackers and chili powder. Worse yet, according to RESOLVE, the farmers might decide to look the other way while poachers take aim at the elephants.

How, then, to steer the elephants away from the farmlands without harming the animals or the farmers? Cue the drones.

The drone field trials, documented in a study published in the Cambridge University Press journal Oryx, showed that in all cases where drones were flown overhead, elephants chose to leave the farmland where they were grazing.

"The results are very positive and show that UAVs can be an effective, flexible way for wildlife managers to deal with human-elephant conflict," said the study's lead author, Nathan Hahn, of Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions, in a statement.

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To date, the researchers say, more than 120 UAV flights have been made by trained wildlife managers whenever news comes of elephants grazing on private farmland.

The copters fly more than 300 feet (90 meters) above the scene, still low enough to get the job done but high enough to bring a measure of safety to all concerned parties, from elephants to farmers to rangers.

Thus far, the researchers say, the elephants have not become so accustomed to the drones that they ignore them and keep grazing.

What's more, the drones are becoming a kind of diplomatic tool for achieving peaceful relations with farmers.

"When we can help farmers move the elephants away, we can build relationships and get them on our side," said park ranger Kateto Ollekashe. "That's also how we can help stop poaching."

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