African Countries Increasingly Turn to Drones to Defend Their Wildlife

Wildlife species like white and black rhinos were poached to the brink of local extinction in the west African country of Botswana in the early 1980s, before being reintroduced in 2001. But despite round-the-clock foot patrols by soldiers ever since, illegal poaching persists.  Now, the government is hoping to deploy drones to keep their treasured wildlife safe.

“With manual efforts, it can be quite challenging in terms of humans being tired and having only a limited view of what is going on just where we’re standing,” Rodrigo Jamisola Jr., an associate professor at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology, told The Wildlife Society recently.

Jamisola, along with a PhD student Tinao Petso, headed a research team that tested the use of drones equipped with high-powered surveillance cameras to detect animal and human movements at night and to relay the images and locations to anti-poaching units.  The team’s findings were published in a recent issue of Science Robotics detailing a proof of concept for drone use.

“Our main objective is to defend the territorial integrity, sovereignty and national interests of our country,” says Petso.

Other African countries have already taken the results of their drone research into active anti-poaching operations.  In South Africa, where an average of three rhinos were killed every day between 2014 and 2016, threatening the extinction of some species, individual park rangers began deploying drones to patrol the perimeters of wildlife parks and preserves at night and over a period of several years were able to stem the tide.

Drone technology allows ranges to extend their aerial surveillance of vast territories far beyond what field patrols can accomplish – and can do so, far more safely, avoiding violent encounters that can ensue when poachers are confronted – or when poachers take pre-emptive action to kill anti-poachers on patrol.

Several aspects of UAV technology have proven especially useful to anti-poachers.  For example, infrared thermal imaging cameras affixed to drones are used to detect and distinguish the heating signatures of wild animals and humans during the evening or at night, allowing anti-poachers to move in fully prepared to apprehend the intruders.

More advanced drone models can be equipped with magnet detectors and audio device detectors that detect the presence of firearms and even the rate of fire of the firearm, determine weaponry profiles, allowing park rangers to be appropriately prepared for potential encounters with poachers.  Finally, some drones come with sirens that can herd wildlife away from traps laid by poachers.

Anti-poaching organizations in South Africa, including Helping Rhinos and the African Rhino Conservation Collaboration, recently acquired the latest DJI M30T drone with a multi-spectral imaging camera to enhance their night-time operations in the Eastern Cape region.

“The M30T drone is great for immediate reaction. Most rhinos on the reserve have colors that send an alert when the rhino shows unusual behavior,” says Siseko Mayinje, who first pioneered the alliance’s drone program back in 2014.  “I get an alert on WhatsApp with the coordinates and fly to the location. It really helps to always know the location of the rhino and keep an eye on them especially at night. When not reacting to alerts I do recon flights looking for anything suspicious and with the thermal camera on the drone I can basically see anything that gives off heat from antelopes to humans.”

Wildlife experts caution that drones alone are not the answer to protecting wildlife from poachers.  Many anti-poaching operations also deploy fixed wing aircraft and helicopters during daylight hours because of their longer flight duration as well as the ability to drop supplies and make rescues as needed.  In addition, drones need the support of anti-poaching ground patrols with K-9 teams that better know the lay of the land and have ties to local communities that are vital for identifying poacher patterns and their effects and for apprehending perpetrators.

But drones are an increasingly powerful tool in the anti-poaching “tool box” – especially vital for closing off night-time operations that make up an estimated 80% of all poaching operations, wildlife experts say.

In fact, anti-poaching support is just one example of the many ways drones can enhance wildlife preservation.  Drones are also being deployed widely to improve the tracking and counting of a wide variety of animal land and marine populations, including their migratory, predatory and mating and reproduction patterns.  As a result, the global market for wildlife drones is experiencing a huge surge, with an annual growth rate estimated at 4.9% from 2023 to 2026.   In 2022 alone, sales revenues from drones designated for wildlife conservation reached a record $3.7 billion.  This soaring demand illustrates the pivotal role that wildlife drones play in protecting the planet’s diverse and endangered species.

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