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Could there soon be an ‘eye in the sky’ to work against poachers?

It’s highly possible that technology could potentially become a secure line of defense against the poaching crisis occurring in Africa, replacing sniffer dogs and GPS tagged rangers currently in force protecting the targeted animals.

A Kenyan reserve specializing in protecting black and white rhinos teamed up with Airware, the San Francisco based tech company, with the intent on creating unmanned drones designed to fly above the 90,000 acres of protected land to keep watch for illegal poaching activity. Developed astonishingly quickly in light of the recent revelation on just how badly he effect of poaching is spreading, the Kenyan Wildlife service gave the combined organisations the blessing to run a 10-day trial in July, 2014, and the results were a pleasing success, even when at one point during the testing a loss of communication occurred with the aircraft (following which, the drone returned back to its launch site with no hassle at all).

Less than a meter in wing length, and able to fly up to 500 feet, the drones are equipped with both a high definition camera and thermal imaging, and fly silently to avoid disturbing both the wildlife and the tourists which support the economy in this area of Africa.

While the trial was deemed a success, it has been admitted that more work needs to be done. The control and the function of the drones works well, but money and research is being put into developing the frame of the aircraft (so it is able to withstand the changing conditions of the African climate), as well as battery life. Currently the smaller drones have a battery life of 30-90 minutes; not long enough for the larger game reserves.

A problem though would be that larger surveillance drones, with longer ranges, are too expensive for most game researches (costing upwards of $250,000 per unit), but the opinions of those involved are that this is a good step forward. A cyber eye in the sky would be a good line of defense against the poaching threat.

UN surveillance drone

A long range surveillance drone (BBC images).

There are some theories that they may also be designed to include an alarm system, despite reservations on the matter; enabling them to, if they locate a potenial poacher, automatically sound an alarm to both alert the authorities and any tourists within the vicinity, and to scare wildlife out of harms range.

Despite the opinion of some being that an alarm would damage the tourist industry and potentially harm the animals, it is the opinion of other’s that both rhinos and elephants are better ‘scared than dead’… and as 1,000 rangers have been killed by poachers in the last 10 years, the early warning system could potentially help reduce human causalities as well.

(To read the full story and extra information on this development, see the BBC news article.)

Is this the right step forward?

In my opinion? Yes. Technology is one of the main causes of the rise in the illegal poaching industry, and in fact the illegal animal trafficking operations, in the last decade. Especially with advances such as the internet, oversea communications and the arrangements of illegal shippings is a lot easier to organise now than it was before the ban on African ivory in the 1970s. But thanks to modern advancements, such as those detailed here and others besides, I think that technology could be the most likely option available for saving what Rhinos and Elephants there are left. If the money and the time and the resources can continue to be thrown into working in areas such as technology development, there is potentially a good chance that the war on blood ivory will turn out less bloody for all involved.

After all, not only do the drones, acoustic traps and mobile technology developments offer security for the elephants and rhinos, but they also offer protection for other species in Africa and targeted areas too, and are being put into use elsewhere on the globe (a university in Florida is currently using drone technology to monitor alligator populations, for instance). Humans are protected too, as I’ve said above… to have more robotic eyes watching the grounds of Africa would reduce the number of humans caught in the crossfire.

Of course, I don’t think it’s the complete answer. Technology is one step on the ladder. In my opinion, in order for anything to actually change, awareness in all countries has to be raised (I may look into this actually, by interviewing my flatmates and seeing how much they, as scientists, know about the problem in Africa right now). There are troubles, of course; the main demand for ivory is now coming from China, where it is considered to be a cultural thing and is it is always hard to get rid of the need for something that has such a history in a countries culture. I believe that eventually it will be possible though… after all. It’s good to be optimistic. And while I have had the chance to work with Asian Elephants, I would love to work with African Elephants and have them unthreatened enough to feel safe while doing so (is that a selfish reason? Perhaps).

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