With the worldwide trade in illegal ivory booming, many species are closer than ever to extinction. Can drones help authorities take on the fight against poachers?
For most people, mention of the word 'drone' is likely to bring to mind images of Big Brother 'eye in the sky' spy planes, sinister military airstrikes or even dystopian Terminator-style robot warfare. Let's face it, drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as they are sometimes known, don't exactly have the cuddliest of public images.
However, if the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has any say, perceptions may soon be changing. Last December, the charity received a $5m grant as part of Google's Global Impact Awards ' an initiative the search giant says aims to support nonprofits using technology and innovation to tackle tough human challenges. It intends to use this money to establish a network of technologically advanced protective measures to fight the increasing problem of poaching across Africa, and drones are a central part of their plan.
A look at the statistics shows that the help cannot come quickly enough. According to a study carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society, African forest elephants, a species native to the Congo Basin, experienced a decline in population of 62 per cent between 2002 and 2011.
Elsewhere, rhinoceroses are similarly being driven to near extinction. A study carried out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that poaching of the animals surged by 43 per cent between 2011 and 2012. Last year, poachers killed 668 rhinos in South Africa, mainly in the Kruger National Park, which is home to the world's largest population of white rhino.
One of the primary reasons for this is the booming ivory trade in Asia. Despite it being well known that rhino horn is made of keratin, the same substance found in human hair and fingernails, many people across China and Vietnam believe it to be a panacea capable of curing everything from erectile dysfunction to cancer.
As the demand for the powdered rhino horn and elephant ivory used in traditional herbal medicines increases so do the prices the poachers can sell them for. The situation is so dire now that the WWF estimates the illegal wildlife trade is worth somewhere in the region of $7bn-10bn a year. As more and more money is involved, the sophistication of the technology and methods employed by the poachers similarly increases. But the WWF is fighting back.
"Given the overwhelming threat to elephants, rhinos and tigers – most threats due to the illegal wildlife trade, WWF came up with a new approach: create an umbrella of technology to protect wildlife," explains Crawford Allan, WWF's expert on illegal wildlife trade.
"WWF will use its Global Impact Award from Google to adapt and help governments implement specialised aerial surveillance systems and affordable wildlife tagging technology, coupled with cost-effective ranger patrolling guided by analytical software, to increase the detection and deterrence of poaching in four sites in Asia and Africa."
The charity aims to develop and test sophisticated but cost-effective and easily-replicable systems built around four main components: aerial surveillance, animal tracking systems, ground patrols and the logging and analysis of data on the movements of both animals and poachers.
Traditionally, rangers have relied on ground patrols and location intelligence to combat poaching. However, the distances they cover are vast and the resources they have to do it with are comparatively scarce. UAVs not only allow the rangers to safely and cheaply view any illegal activities which may be taking place on the ground, but also give them easier, faster access to the often difficult terrain they are required to cover.
To coordinate these elements the charity plans to use a brand new piece of software, the spatial monitoring and reporting tool (SMART). Developed by a group of global conservation agencies, SMART acts as a central control system to measure, evaluate and guide enforcement patrols. The software is open source, non-propriety, highly-modifiable and available to the conservation community for free. It will incorporate intelligence gathering as well as patrol data, and it will use innovative ways to aid conservation managers in strategic enforcement planning. It is also available in the native languages of many end users. Feeding into this system will be data gleaned from animal tracking systems based on mobile GSM technology, aerial surveillance from UAVs, and also from rangers working on the ground.
"Basically, the animal tracking system will help us know where the animals are," says Allan. "The aerial vehicle will help to detect poachers, particularly at night, and the SMART system will allow for decisions to be made to deploy wildlife rangers and law enforcement in the most cost effective and safe way to intercept and deter poachers based on a range of analytics."
Despite many forward-thinking ideas, the initiative in Africa is not without precedent. Last year, WWF introduced UAVs to Bardia National Parks in Nepal. Like Africa, Nepal is home to a number of endangered species prized by poachers thanks to the high prices their bones and other parts command. Among these, tigers, elephants and rhinos are particularly prized and, sadly, also particularly vulnerable.
The UAVs used in this initiative were GPS-enabled FPV Raptors. These are inexpensive model planes often used by hobby aircraft builders and radio control enthusiasts and are small and light enough to be launched by hand. They have a wingspan of around two metres and fly at a maximum altitude of around 200 metres on a pre-programmed route of 28km. Each flight takes around 50 minutes and cameras fitted on board can take both still and video images of the ground. The WWF plans to use more sophisticated models in Africa.
It's clear that initiatives like this may not be enough on their own to save some species. Groups such as the WWF need to work with governments in Africa and Asia to improve education, tighten border controls and develop other new technologies to combat the illegal wildlife trade as a whole. But despite the many bleak statistics, hope remains for the world's fauna: Bardia National Park in Nepal recently reported a positive increase in its tiger population.