Night-Flying Drones Fight Poachers in Africa

Air Shepherd system uses infrared cameras to prevent illegal elephant and rhino poaching. Continue reading →

A night-flying drone is taking on wildlife poaching in African nations.

The innovative Air Shepherd, sponsored by the Lindbergh Foundation, uses unmanned aerial drones to expose illegal hunting and help re-establish stability in the tourism industry, gravely impacted by the deaths of wild animals.

Poached Rhinos Reach Record Levels

"Poachers, operating under the cover of darkness, have been impossible to find ... until now," according this rather persuasive video from the Lindbergh Foundation.

Flying silently and invisibly, the drones track both wildlife and the movement of hunters, relaying information to ground enforcement teams, who can then intercept poachers before any slaughter takes place.

The Faces Of Poaching: Photos

Elephant and rhino poaching is particularly deadly in Africa, where corrupt governments and terrorist groups rely on profits from the lucrative illegal poaching business. The decline of these animals hurts tourism, which local economies rely on. Poaching has produced a lethal cycle of instability in many regions.

The cited statistics are startling: Poaching is a $5 billion per year enterprise in Africa. A single rhino horn can sell for up to $500,000 in Vietnam. Last year, an estimated 40,000 elephants were killed to make ivory trinkets.

Then there is the human toll: Hundreds of rangers have been killed battling armed poachers. It's estimated that more than 13 million Africans are directly dependent on wildlife for their livelihood.

Tech Targeting Wildlife Poachers: Photos

The official launch of the Air Shepherd program follows two years of development and more than 1,000 hours of test flights. The program also includes months of extensive training for drone teams, who are deployed into areas known for illegal poaching activities. The three-aircraft operating teams work with rangers on the ground to outmaneuver illegal poaching parties.

As of now, the Air Shepherd program is active in areas of Kruger Park and KwaZulu Natal, in South Africa. Air Shepherd is also working with officials in six other African countries who have requested help in the fight against poaching. You can check out the Air Shepherd video below.

There’s no silver bullet solution to protecting endangered species. We can't stand guard over every single one of them, as this man is doing to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe. But technology can be helpful in staying ahead of wildlife poachers who have been winning the war for too long, according to Crawford Allan, a senior director based at the World Wildlife Fund for a large international wildlife trade monitoring program called TRAFFIC. Here’s a look at their arsenal.

One of the first technologies rolled out consistently to monitor wildlife, camera traps were catching poachers in the act. They’ve since evolved into tinier, almost impossible to detect digital devices. Some have live video feeds, automatic triggers, remote access, heat sensing, vibration detection and are smart enough to triangulate shotgun sounds so park rangers know exactly where to go.

Wildlife conservationists need to know where the animals are in order to protect them. Radio-frequency identification tags are an important tool, WWF’s Crawford Allan said. RFID chips implanted in rhinoceros horns connect to ground or mobile sensors so when one falls off the grid, a team can work on tracking it down and check the animal's welfare. The tags work for other species, as well. Here, two Canada Lynx kittens are tagged by rangers from the US Fish and WIldlife Services.

Getting a visual on poachers before they strike is tall order. Masts with static night vision cameras are used to keep an eye out, but the image angle and range are limited, according to Allan. Light aircraft are expensive, require a pilot, need runways and could be shot down. For these reasons, unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as a potential solution. Cost is still an issue but poachers can’t hide easily from UAVs with thermal detection patrolling the skies.

Mesh networks are digital communications systems originally developed for the military, Allan explained. With help from a $5 million Google grant, WWF is installing a mesh network to relay sensor and device data. Rangers on the ground can also use the network to communicate without poachers being able to listen in.

Satellite technology has transformed basic tracking collars. Accelerometers inside can indicate whether the animal is well, sick or has died given its motion and the satellite connection means the animals are easier to locate. The collars can be used on a wide range of animals, from birds on up to elephants. Allan said the price has been prohibitive for developing countries, so he hopes it will come down.

The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, known as SMART, is a free open-source software created by a community of conservation organizations. Available in local languages, the software is designed to make wildlife conservation activities and wildlife law enforcement patrols more effective. Tracking animals, patrols and vehicles means an influx of data, and SMART can crunch it all to show stakeholders the big picture.

In India, the illegal metal snares used to catch tigers were being cleverly camouflaged. To fight back, the TRAFFIC wildlife trade monitoring network trained forest guards to use robust, easy-to-assemble Deep Search Metal Detectors. “Word kind of got around that there was some sort of magic technology out there that was going to find every poacher in the forest instantly,” Allan said.

In South Africa, the Rhino DNA Index System or RhODIS project has unique DNA profiles for individual rhinos. If one is killed for its horn, the database aids in prosecuting poachers. Wildlife forensics has such a high degree of resolution now that DNA testing can actually show which country in Africa confiscated ivory came from, Allan said. Here, a tiger cub is donating a blood sample for DNA sequencing.