Can drones save Rhinos?

Can Drones Save Rhinos?

It is 22nd September and it is World Rhino Day, a day of celebration of our 5 rhino species in the world. A good opportunity for NGO’s and like minded organisations to come together to raise awareness and donations for these magnificent animals. A celebration is should be and yet, it is hard to celebrate these wonderful creatures without worrying about their fate. This year to date, more than 530 rhinos have been illegally poached in South Africa alone. With the price of rhino horn continuing to sky rocket – a kilogram of rhino horn reportedly sells for around $150,000 a kilogram on the black market – rhino poaching in Africa, especially, has escalated. According to Crawford Allan, spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) crime technology project, “South Africa’s Kruger National Park is ground zero for poachers; there are 12 gangs in there at any time. It’s a war zone.”

Reducing the overall demand for rhino horn remains the most effective long term solution to saving these animals – cue World Rhino Day, education and social media campaigns. Whilst this has resulted in global condemnation of rhino poaching, the war on the ground continues to rage. As such, until the demand for rhino horn is eradicated entirely, the fight on the ground needs to improve in its effectiveness before we lose our rhinos all together. Rangers need all the help they can get against highly militarised poaching syndicates.

White rhino and her calf

In recent years, various new technologies have been introduced and used in an attempt to combat wildlife crime. Drones, satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis, hidden cameras, GPS location devices and apps are all being implemented to try and predict, locate, track and catch suspected poachers to reduce the number of animals being killed for the illegal wildlife trade. Drones, in particular, have been receiving increased press attention as a ‘silver bullet’ to end the current rhino poaching crisis. But can they succeed?

How are Drones used to combat wildlife crime?

A drone is is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground, who can monitor the footage taken by the drone and control its movements. With such vast landscapes for anti poaching units to patrol, searching for poachers in Africa’s wildlife reserves can seem like a needle-in-a-haystack operation. A drone therefore appears to be an ideal tool to employ to help the anti poaching units cover greater areas of reserves in less time. The big players certainly think so. In 2012, Google gave $5 million in funding to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to purchase conservation drones to fly over parts of Africa and Asia, in an attempt to help monitor and catch wildlife poachers. Later in 2014, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation made a R255 million donation for a three-year initiative in partnership with Nature Conservation Trust, South African National Parks (SANParks) and a South African public benefit organisation (PBO) to combat poaching in Kruger National Park and test the new drone anti-poaching technology. The idea would be that rangers at the base could operate the drones via two laptops, one showing a map tracking the flight path, the other showing the drones point of view through a high-definition camera. Upon locating poachers, a ground unit could then be deployed to detain them.

How drones work in the field

Are Drones effective anti poaching tools?

With headlines such as “Drones, satellites and maths take down poachers in South Africa”, it is hard not to get swept up in the media hype, especially when they seems to make so much sense. But a few years of testing down the line, what is the story on the ground?

The Good

There has been undeniable success of drones when it comes to detecting larger objects. In Liwonde National Park, Malawi, many poachers enter the reserve by boat and drones have had a marked impact in helping the anti poaching team detect them. As night falls in Liwonde Reserve, three hundred feet in the air, a thermal camera attached to a BatHawk drone tracks poachers boats, often spotted gliding almost silently up the Shire River. With the tap of a few keys, the drone operator switches on the drone’s navigation lights and sends it beelining toward the boat. The reaction is instantaneous: The boat makes a U-turn, and high-tails out of the park. The intruders are removed, and no soldiers are put in any danger.

The Bad and the Ugly

In March 2017, SANParks announced that will they no longer be using drones to combat poaching. The announcement came after a three year-long evaluation period that exposed a number of shortcomings of the drones. Their findings, unfortunately, seem synonymous with those in other reserves. So what are the issues?

Trailing a drone in Tanzania


It seems there are technological limitations to drones’ usefulness. Shortcomings include a limited battery life, their range must remain within line-of-sight of the operator, and malfunctions lead to expensive crashes. The payload (thermal-imaging equipment, batteries etc.) can make them heavy, too. While the “brains” of a drone weigh just 100g, the batteries required to power it for long-duration surveillance missions are heavy, meaning the airframe has to be bigger, and therefore more costly. Smaller, cheaper drones come with a typical battery life of 30-90 minutes, but large game reserves really need drones that can fly for six to eight hours. Weather and landscape too is an issue. Developing an airframe that is both light and strong enough to withstand Africa’s rugged landscapes and varying weather conditions is still a challenge, especially where cost is issue for many game reserves.

It isn’t that the technology doesn’t exist – it does. The US Military, for example, make extensive use of drones, using them to strike terrorist targets, capable of flying long distances and able to carry heavily payloads, missiles included. That said, these higher spec drones cost upwards of $250,000, which is well beyond the budgets of strapped conservation organisations and reserves. As a result, the drones used for conservation purposes are much smaller and more limited; arguably inappropriate models, too fragile for wild landscapes and lacking the necessary flight capabilities and cameras.

Skills and Data Analysis

Whilst drones may be unmanned, they still require skilled operators and as such, a drone is only as good as its operator. If the operator has not received sufficient training, the capabilities will not be fully utilised. The same goes for the data analysis of the footage. Currently drone operators must watch a live video feed to detect an intruder. With hours upon hours of footage, it seems all too easy to miss the poachers – all it would take is for the operator to look away for just a split second. There is research being done however, to help improve the effectiveness of analysing the drone footage. Serge Wich, an ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University in Britain and co-founder of the nonprofit Conservation Drones, is collaborating with colleagues from the astrophysics department to develop drone software that differentiates between humans and animals. “Once this is finalised, instead of having hours of video to look at that doesn’t have meaningful information, rangers will get a ping when there’s a high chance that a poacher has been detected.” This will most certainly improve a Drones anti poaching capabilities.


In January 2015, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority banned the use of drones, advising individuals and organisations that they should seek permission from the Ministry of Defence to fly a drone. Meanwhile, in Namibia, trial flights and training undertaken by the W.W.F., supported by the Google grant, were cut short when the Namibian government suspended the use of drones in national parks. Other nations too have banned unmanned aerial vehicles entirely or have strictly limited their use, often as a result of fears that they might be misused. Bribery goes hand in hand here, too. It has been reported that in some cases, drone operators have allegedly been bribed to give out sensitive rhino location details to poachers. Bribery sits at the very heart of the rhino poaching issue, so it is not surprising that it would extend into the use of drones, either. Lie detector tests and close observation of Drone operators should mitigate this, though arguably if there is data to give out, at least the drones have been proven to work to some extent! As in any country, legal and bureaucratic obstacles thus must be overcome before drones can be successful in reserves. In 2015, South Africa established some of the first formal drone legislation, and other countries have started making limited exceptions for their use – a good start.

Ground Patrol to Major Tom

The drone team testing in the Kruger National Park failed to report much anti poaching activity, which led to the direct conclusion that drones were ineffective as anti poaching tools. However, on the one occasion when the operators did detect poachers in the reserve, it was reported that the drone team called park officials, who said that there were no rangers available for deployment. Professor Tom Snitch from the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies cautioned; “Drones can be a useful tool as long as there are rangers on the ground ready to use the data”. The WWF claimed too that following testing, their ultimate finding was that Drones, by themselves, were pointless. Even where poachers have been located, rangers still have the dangerous task of tracking them on foot and arresting or seeing off the gangs, most of whom are heavily armed.

Helicopters and tracking dogs are widely used in anti-poaching efforts.

The future of Drones in Conservation

Whilst currently it seems that the shortcomings in conservation drone technology outweigh their effectiveness as anti poaching tools, there is most certainly still a place for them in conservation. As well as spotting, tracking and deterring poachers, drones can also play a wider conservation role.Those equipped with multiple sensors and cameras can be used strategically for surveillance, data collection, and flora and fauna censuses. One unexpected discovery has been that Drones have become useful tools in reducing the human wildlife conflict. They sound a bit like bee’s in flight and as such, have been effective in steering elephants away form park boundaries, as elephants hate bees!

SANParks and other reserves have certainly not ruled out drones for use in the future, either; if the UAVs can improve their capabilities and meet requirements, they will be considered again. In the time being, helicopters, canine sniffer dog units and highly trained anti poaching units are being deployed with good success rates. It is disappointing knowing that the Drones most effective for use in anti poaching already exists, but that expense and lack of funding have made it an impossible item for reserves to obtain. It all comes down to donations and financial support. Projects such as the Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd program, who work alongside South Africa’s Peace Parks Foundation and the W.W.F.’s Google grant, have covered about half of the $100,000 monthly operational costs, in parks they support. It is support like this that will help save our rhinos from extinction.

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