Africa is blessed with wild animals which makes it a goldmine for poachers. 40000 elephants in Central and Southern Africa are killed yearly for their ivory. In the first four months of 2015, 393 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa which is the equivalent of about three rhinos slaughtered each day. This grim tally marks an 18 percent increase over that same period in 2014, a year that went down in history as the deadliest on record for the imperiled species with a total of 1,215 rhinos lost.
“At this rate, all elephants and rhinos in the wild in Africa will be dead in less than 10 years,” says John Petersen, chairman of the Lindberg Foundation, which focuses on efforts to balance technology and the environment. The Lindbergh Foundation had previously helped the Kenya Wildlife Service acquire planes to help keep tabs on poachers. Unfortunately, traditional aircraft can be shot down much more easily than drones, a problem that was also confronted by humanitarians trying to air-drop humanitarian aid to Syria. And the pilots couldn’t fly as well or see the ground as clearly at night, which is when virtually all the poaching activity happens. So now the foundation is turning to drones as part of an initiative they are calling Air Shephered. With infrared cameras, drones could effectively observe both animals and poachers at night.
But Air Shepherd is doing more than just outfitting drones with cameras and hoping for the best. Drones are just one piece of the puzzle. Air Shepherd also uses a targeted analytics system developed by the University of Maryland to predict where poachers will be before they get there. Researchers at University of Maryland originally developed their predictive engine for the Department of Defense to anticipate where roadside bombs would be placed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’ve adapted it to the poaching problem and rechristened it APE, or the Anti-Poaching Engine.
APE works by developing a database and mission profile for each area with animals endangered by poachers. It relates forecasted weather patterns, topography, infrastructure in the area, and information about past poaching attempts in the area to anticipate poachers’ next moves. All of that data is then processed to generate a flight pattern for a set of drones. With the drones acting as eyes in the sky, Air Shepherd hopes to be the advance scouts for rangers charged with protecting elephants and rhinoceroses, but who can’t be everywhere at once.
In the coming weeks, Lindbergh Foundation will launch its first team in Botswana. By the end of the summer, they hope to be operational in at least one other country—likely Namibia, Zambia, or Tanzania.
“Air Shepherd has the distinct potential of keeping these magnificent animals from going extinct at the hands of poachers,” says Petersen. “Where the components of the Air Shepherd program have been tested, the poaching has stopped. That’s something that none of the other laudable efforts to stop poaching can claim.”
The use of drones has helped reduce the rate at which animals are being killed in Africa. Kenya has been widely affected by poachers and in 2013 motion cameras were designed to get poachers. In March the President burnt almost 15 tonnes of elephant tusks at an event marking World Wildlife Day to discourage ivory trade. The president at the event said, “many of these tusks belonged to elephants which were wantonly slaughtered by criminals. We want future generations of Kenyans, Africans and the entire world to experience the majesty and beauty of these magnificent beasts. Poachers and their enablers will not have the last word.”
Higher demand for ivory is fueling elephant killings by poachers across Africa. Save The Elephants, a London-based wildlife conservation group, said last year that 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012. The high cases of elephant killings in Africa resulted to the imposition of a one year ban of Ivory imports in China.
Paul Udoto, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service during the World Wildlife Day said, ” We would like to tell the world to stop the trade in ivory because it is destroying our economy, our heritage, our environment.”
Last year Kenya deployed drones in all 52 national parks and reserves in a bid to monitor and stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos. The spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service said.” The use of drones has shown that we can prevent poaching and arrest many poachers on their tracks. The pilot project has been a success and we are working with many partners including the Kenya police, the National Intelligence Service, and a lot of international partners such as Interpol, Ugandan and Tanzanian governments.” The drones that are currently used in Kenya, use radio frequencies to monitor the landscape and the movement of the animals. They are unmanned aircraft and remotely piloted in areas that are considered too risky for flight.