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Drones Can Curb Poaching, But They’re Much Costlier Than Alternatives

A team of experienced rangers practice tracking formations used when doing reconnaissance patrols to gather information on poachers operating in a protected area in Malawi.
A team of experienced rangers practice tracking formations used when doing reconnaissance patrols to gather information on poachers operating in a protected area in Malawi. Photo by Rory Young

 

By Patricia Raxter and Rory Young

Across the globe poaching and wildlife crime are decimating species, from charismatic megafauna like African elephants and rhinos to small and adorable pangolins to brightly colored parrots. An estimated 100,000 African elephants were poached for their ivory from 2011 to 2013. Since 2007, rhino poaching has increased 9,000 percent.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Earth has lost 50 percent of its wildlife in the past 40 years. While habitat loss and environmental degradation clearly take their toll, poaching for human consumption has emerged as a key factor driving this loss.

As organized crime has penetrated the illegal wildlife trade, it has gotten more sophisticated and almost impossible to stop. We’re in the midst of an environmental crime crisis which could, if left unchecked, have irreversible consequences.

Increasingly, conservationists and policymakers are turning to technology solutions to combat wildlife crime, including drones, satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis, hidden cameras, GPS location devices, and apps.

In some regions, new technologies are already making an impact. For example, organizations seeking demand reduction are skillfully using such technologies to change the habits of Chinese consumers, the world’s largest market for wildlife products.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has reached hundreds of millions of Chinese through social media applications like Wechat. IFAW’s augmented reality elephant, “Laura,” is spreading awareness of wildlife through “live” interactions with Chinese consumers, most of whom have never seen a living elephant.

At the supply end of the chain in Africa, where elephants are poached by the tens of thousands each year and rhino poaching has reached historic levels, drones are increasingly being pushed as an integral part of the solution.

Anti-poaching drones have already been deployed in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia.

Tech challenges staged by the U.S. government, private industry, and conservation organizations aim to inspire thinkers and technologists to crack some of the difficulties associated with drone use: their operation in austere terrain, their energy and power needs, range limitations, streaming capabilities, and cost.

 

Poachers and Rangers: An Arms Race

The push to adopt new technologies to combat poaching arises from what has been characterized as an arms race between poachers and wildlife rangers. It’s not uncommon for poachers to be armed with automatic weapons, silencers, copious amounts of ammunition, and even night vision goggles. They may even have access to satellite phones and hand-held GPS devices to coordinate with traffickers and stash trophies.

Some poachers, like the Sudanese Janjaweed and other heavily armed gangs on horseback, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and RENAMO, have been trained in military tactics, enhancing their capabilities and intensifying the threat to park rangers and local communities.

Perhaps the most highly developed and tested drone program, to combat rhino poaching in South Africa, was created at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).

Working with AirShephard, a nonprofit focused on aerial solutions to the poaching crisis, UMIACS cut rhino poaching entirely in one area in South Africa that previously had lost as many as 19 rhinos a month.

The program combines big data analytics and satellite imagery to understand better how poachers, wildlife, and rangers use the environment and which factors increase or decrease the likelihood an animal will be poached at a specific time and place.

To predict when and where poaching will occur, the analytics rely on algorithms that take into account such details as the phases of the moon, road networks, water holes, past poaching incidents, and the satellite-tracked movements of animals.

New data are acquired daily from drones, tour operators, rangers on patrol, and GPS collars on individual animals. In aggregrate, the analytics reveal patterns of poaching attacks and can predict with 90 percent accuracy where poachers will strike.

According to UMIACS, most rhino poaching occurs near a roadway on or near the full moon and between 6:30 and 8:30 at night.

Using this information, rangers are pre-deployed to areas holding rhinos and other vulnerable animals. When the drone spots potential poachers, it signals a command center that alerts rangers, who immediately can move in to prevent animals from being killed and arrest the criminals.

 

 

Drones Not a Silver Bullet
These tools have amazing potential, but they aren’t a silver bullet or a panacea. The usefulness of drones for tracking poachers in real time is limited by several factors.

Drones require skilled operators, significant infrastructure support, and robust and voluminous data.

The powerful UMIACS package tested in South Africa involved a team of outside experts to: analyze data about past poaching events, generate algorithms to map out flight plans, operate and maintain the drones, and analyze and transmit the data to ranger forces.

Also needed, and sorely lacking in many African countries, if drone programs are to succeed: well-trained and well-equipped ranger forces to intervene and make arrests.

It’s not uncommon for ranger forces to lack vehicles, weapons, communications equipment, and even basic supplies like water bottles and boots. In some countries, rangers go months without being paid. Most important, rangers often don’t get essential basic training.

There are other constraints on drones as tools to fight poaching. They can fly only for short periods, which limits their coverage area. Although they perform well in open terrain, they’re much less effective in densely forested habitats. They don’t do well in rain, and dust and grit can hobble them.

A poaching suspect is apprehended.
Information from tracking teams on poacher entry and exit routes led to the apprehension of this suspect during an ambush. He awaits questioning to find out about who his accomplices, weapons suppliers, and ivory buyers are, as well as his motivation for poaching. Photo by Rory Young

 

To be truly effective, drones need thermal imaging capabilities to spot poachers hiding in the bush, sophisticated imaging technology to scan and zoom in on the land, and to be able to fly at altitudes where they can’t easily be seen. Boosting their capabilities in these ways is very costly.

Even if the software is donated, the whole package—the drones themselves, their operators, and the control station—can amount to $500,000 a year. Funding for such operations simply doesn’t exist in most parks and wildlife areas in Africa.

AirShephard is now trying to raise money to fund 40 to 50 teams across southern Africa. At the low end, these could run to $20 million a year.

Before conservation dollars are thrown at drone technologies, another question must be asked: How effective are they at stopping poaching of animals other than iconic megafauna like elephants and rhinos?

Sadly, the current poaching crisis may just be the beginning of wave after wave of attacks on various different animals, as sophisticated organized crime networks expand their interests and operations.

Pangolins, for example, are now the world’s most trafficked mammal, endangered in every part of their range because of the illegal trade. It’s unclear whether drones could have any effect on pangolin poaching—or the plunder of other small mammals, birds, and reptiles that’s destroying ecosystems across the globe.

Another question: How would drones be used outside parks and reserves? In Kenya, 85 percent of wildlife lives in communally held lands. In these populated areas, how could a drone determine friend from foe?

In Tanzania, it’s estimated that up to 60,000 people hunt illegally on the western side of Serengeti alone. Drone technology can’t defeat such an onslaught.

Despite the increase in arrests of poachers in Kruger and the efficacy of the drone program in one area of the park, rhinos continue to be poached at an alarming rate: Last year 1,215 were killed, 21 percent more than in 2013.

During one week this April, wildlife authorities found 31 poached rhinos in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, where drones have been used since late 2013. This suggests that drones may be pushing poachers into less well protected areas rather than contributing to an overall decrease in poaching.

Effective Alternatives

A proven strategy is to combat poaching with skilled, intelligence-driven anti-poaching units that rely on networks of informants within local communities and deployment of trained undercover officers.

The goal is to understand every link in the poaching chain: Who kills the animals, and where and when, what routes poachers follow out of the kill zones, who conducts the trade in wildlife parts.

These programs also emphasize the importance of crime scene investigations to build solid cases against poachers and achieve convictions.

Investigative skills associated with tracking can be used to gather high value actionable intelligence on both non-state armed groups and criminal poachers.

With training, rangers can bring to bear evidence such as leftover food scraps, trash, cigarette and alcohol packets, footprints, tire tread marks, spent cartridges in determining where poachers originated, their group size, how long ago a camp was occupied, transportation methods, strike ranges, and how poachers’ support networks function. Such information can help build legal cases to bring down entire poaching networks.

Preventive, proactive intelligence-driven programs focus nurturing sympathetic sources within local communities and tapping their knowledge. This approach is safer for rangers and conservation professionals—and for wildlife. It’s also far less costly and is more sustainable than technology-driven approaches.

Ruvuma Elephant Project

The Ruvuma Elephant Project (REP) is active in the wildlife corridor connecting the Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania, and Niassa National Park, in Mozambique.

REP focuses on training game scouts and rangers, many recruited from local communities, in anti-poaching skills as well as in how to prepare cases against poachers.

REP teams patrol inside the parks to help prevent illegal activity such as setting snares, poison, and traps. They use financial incentives to develop a network of informers who share their knowledge (read: intelligence) about potential poaching and trafficking activities.

With such community support, REP has been able to identify poachers and financiers and make arrests.

In addition, through education programs, mitigation of human/wildlife conflict, and the development of local businesses, REP attempts to address some of the root causes of community participation in poaching.

These include poverty, unemployment, lack of understanding about the value of wildlife and conservation, and poor relationships between wildlife authorities and local communities.

Once the project got under way, the area saw a significant drop in poaching in a short period. According to Save the Elephants, the number of poached carcasses dropped from 216 the year before the project was put in place to 68 the next year.

In two years the REP recorded “the seizure of 1,582 snares; 25,586 illegal timber (pieces); 175 elephant tusks; 805 firearms; 1,531 rounds of ammunition; 6 vehicles; 15 motorcycles; and the arrest of 563 people.”

An Initiative in Malawi

A similar intelligence-driven program in Malawi, sponsored by the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) and Chengeta Wildlife and working alongside the Department of National Parks & Wildlife (DNPW), provides 30 days of anti-poaching training to senior park staff in national parks and wildlife reserves, as well as 30 days of field training.

A ranger examines tracks to determine direction, speed, time, group size and other crucial information before relaying it to a commander who will use it to position an apprehension team in the path of the poachers at the right place and time so as to intercept them.
A ranger examines poachers’ tracks to determine such crucial information as their direction, speed, time, and group size. The intelligence will be relayed to a commander who will then position an apprehension team to intercept the poachers. Photo by Rory Young

 

Malawi depends on tourism for 60 percent of its foreign currency earnings, so curbing poaching is crucial for the country’s economy and for the security of its human communities.

Outlined in “A Field Manual for Anti-Poaching Activities,” by Rory Young and Yakov Alekseyev, the training—which costs $18,000—has proved incredibly effective. During one exercise, an anti-poaching unit took down an entire poaching syndicate and identified key individuals in other important networks.

The training bears fruit because it is comprehensive, focusing on all aspects of poaching in an area.

Rangers learn to gather information on poaching activities before they set out on patrols—including who the poachers are and where they come from, which animals are targeted, which times of the day are favored by poachers, and which ingress and egress routes are used.

Rangers also learn how to investigate crime scenes, run informants, plan and conduct undercover operations, track and apprehend poachers in challenging environments, and contribute to successful prosecutions.

The recent training in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve resulted in 81 arrests in just two weeks of the field training phase. To put this into perspective, only 21 arrests were made in all of 2014.

For cash-strapped wildlife departments, it’s essential for solutions to poaching to be cost-effective.

An important component of the Malawi program is its focus on creating in-house training teams so that the wildlife department doesn’t have to pay for outside expertise every time.

Patricia Raxter is an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army and is currently writing her dissertation on wildlife crime in Africa at Old Dominion University. Rory Young, Director of Changeta Wildlife, is an expert tracker who has dedicated his life to wildlife protection. Young recently coauthored A Field Manual For Anti-Poaching Activities, which provides workable solutions to poaching.