Two rhinoceros

Wildlife monitoring: should UAV drones be banned?

As UAVs become more widely used by conservationists, some countries are trying to ban them on ethical grounds.

Just when you thought it was safe to stop talking about UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as something that conservationists and authorities might one day use to stop poachers killing animals and start talking about drones as something actually being used to catch poachers, African governments have started banning them.On 3 June this year reports emerged that the South African Civil Aviation Authority had banned individuals and groups from flying drones with mounted cameras in South African airspace. The SACAA quickly denied this. They said that drones needed to meet certain requirements to fly in South African airspace, it was just that no drones currently met those requirements. The next day, the Kenyan government also banned privately owned drones with cameras.

A few weeks earlier, drones had been banned in the USA’s 58 National Parks. People were using them to take photos, officials said, upsetting wildlife and other park visitors. In March, Alaska became the third US state after Montana and Colorado to put a stop to drone-assisted hunting.

The Kenyan ban means the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, 22km west of Nanykuni, can’t use their aerial ranger UAV to protect black rhinos and the critically endangered northern white rhino. After two years of meticulous planning, in April 2014 bosses at the privately owned conservancy said that the drone was heading back to the US for one final tweaking, with a promise that it would be deployed in the park in June 2014. Thanks to the ban it’s now more negotiations and no doubt a horrible death for a few more rhinos.

UAVs for non-violent causes?

Drones get a lot of criticism, but surely wildlife conservation is the sort of cause that everyone, except poachers, can agree on? There are, however, wider security and privacy issues to consider.

Imagine an Ol Pejeta aerial ranger innocently monitoring red kite populations over the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, UK. What happens if that 1.82m, 5kg drone with a 3m wingspan, carrying a camera, accidently buzzes Chequers during a Prime Ministerial visit?

Conservation UAVs look like those used by terrorists or paparazzi, particularly from a distance. They can be just another drone with a camera, or potentially something more dangerous. “Drones are very difficult to control,” says Professor David Dunn, a security expert from the University of Birmingham. “You can regulate, ban them from coming within 250m of a property, but how, exactly, do you police that?”

There are almost as many people and groups who want drones banned, or at least heavily regulated, as there are companies selling them. The South African government says that it banned drones pending research into how best to regulate them. Kenyan officials cited security concerns.

“In every African country I’ve worked in, from the Central African Republic to Zimbabwe, the government would put their own security before wildlife protection,” says Rory Young, a tracker and anti-poaching activist from Zimbabwe.

The idea of UAVs in wildlife conservation is not new. About three years ago Serge Wich from the University of Liverpool, UK, and ecologist Lian Pin Koh, realised it would be quicker to search large areas of Sumatran wilderness with a drone. Since then, drones have been proposed as the answer to pretty much any wildlife conservation issue that requires monitoring or evidence gathering.  

Poachers, beware!

With camera-carrying drones, authorities in at-risk areas can quickly and efficiently locate, monitor and eventually prosecute poachers. Eric Schmidt from Wildlife Protection Solutions, a drone-making company in the US, explains that the drone’s operator can tell when poachers are active in a particular area and relay real-time information back to a command centre. “Fences cut, trucks following known animal tracks, or the colour blue – which in the bush usually means a pair of jeans, these are the signs that poachers are around,” he says.

Schmidt says that drones act as a visible deterrent, especially if you “send them out just before sunset, the time poachers are most active”, he adds.

Last March, E&T reported how the WWF was using an algorithm that can predict with 95 per cent accuracy the location of poachers and at-risk animals in a Namibian nature reserve. Drones helped gather the information that informed the algorithm. “We don’t have to be reactive, we can place rangers and drones in areas where an incident is most likely to occur,” says Professor Tom Snitch from the University of Maryland, who developed the algorithm. He is using similar technology to monitor illegal fishing in five locations around the world.

Whether it’s monitoring dam efficiency in Idaho’s Snake River, observing dugong movements in Shark Bay, Australia, or tracking GPS-tagged bird the storm petrel in New Zealand, the real-time data that UAVs provides can help conservationists better understand animals and, if necessary, lobby governments to change laws.

Alaska is twice the size of Texas, with only a million inhabitants and lots of animals including three types of bear, wolves, puma, lynx, wolverine, caribou, musk oxen, moose and many more. “We don’t know much about how these animals breed, migrate and behave,” says Sophie Gilbert from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Gilbert has just embarked on a two-year project that will use UAVs to track animals across large areas of unchartered Alaskan wilderness. “We want to discover the ecological drivers of population movements, increases and decreases in animal populations,” she says.

Gilbert explains that the only other way of monitoring these animals – flying small planes at low altitudes – is expensive and dangerous. With a drone, she hopes to be able to get closer to the animals without disturbing them. “Conservationists all over the world face these problems,” Gilbert says.

Safeguarding criminal activity

Companies looking for a market for their product know this but recent bans might necessitate a rethink. “There has been a lot of negative publicity in Africa about the Americans using drones in the Middle East and Afghanistan,” Young says. “African governments get decidedly twitchy at the thought of drones flying over their countries. If they see something they don’t like or understand, they’ll just disallow it.”

One expert, talking anonymously, believes that some African officials are worried that drones might uncover, and put a stop to, their own corruption. “How can you get 60,000 elephant tusks and rhino horns out of Africa and into China and south-east Asia every year?” he says. “That’s a huge cargo – there has to be collusion at every point along the way. If we stop poaching, there’ll be people in Africa who’ll lose millions of dollars.”

Young says that he encounters corruption all the time. “I’m forever being accused of being everything from a mercenary to a spy,” he says. “When this happens, there’s always someone out in the back who is losing money because of our anti-poaching work.”

Corruption can take more subtle forms. US conservation groups claim that state governments are banning drones because anti-hunting groups had started using them to track, film and disrupt people who were hunting illegally.
Prof Dunn of the University of Birmingham believes that working with authorities is the key to overturning bans and avoiding future sanctions elsewhere. This means abiding by security regulations.

Dan Nesbitt, from UK civil liberties campaigner Big Brother Watch, suggests that conservationists thinking of using drones should carry out a privacy impact assessment. “Even in sparsely populated areas we do what we can to limit what people are surveyed accidently,” he says.

Wildlife safety v human security

Gilbert’s team works with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, one of six official US Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft system test sites. Officially sanctioned projects are more likely to be trusted with a UAV license.

Even if the ban on drones does spread, it’s not necessarily the end of technology’s battle against the poachers. It’s the information gathered, not the drones themselves, that is important. And this information can be gathered in other ways.

To people in poverty stricken parts of the world, poaching is just a job. Increase the risk of getting caught or hurt, however, and fewer will get involved. The University of Maryland’s Prof Snitch’s ranger-deploying algorithm, which has 95 per cent accuracy, does that. “Drones mean we can see if we’re 5 per cent out, but even without drones the rangers are still deployed in the right places, at the right times,” he says.

Anti-poaching activist Young has seen camera traps used to deter poachers from entering certain parts. However, he believes that well-trained trackers – from local people to conservation groups and the authorities – are just as effective at gathering information about animal and poachers’ movements. “Employing locals builds goodwill, gets them onside against the poachers,” he says.

Young adds that giving poachers harsher penalties is far and away the best way to deter them. Wildlife police all over the world have long complained about the lenient punishments handed out to both poachers and the white collar criminals at the other end of the wildlife crime chain. Last September, an ivory smuggler from Malawi was caught with 28 elephant tusks and fined 150,000 Malawian Kwacha, about £223. In comparison, it’s six months in jail or a huge $5,000 fine for flying a drone with a camera in a US National Park.

Like pretty much every other legal and moral issue, what happens to poachers, drones and wild animals depends on political and economic priorities. The Swaziland economy, for instance, needs tourism and the wildlife there brings in the tourists. Because of this, there has been a mandatory five-year prison sentence in place for poachers. When convicted, poachers also have to pay back the cost of the animal killed to the owner – the equivalent of £200,000 for a black rhino, for example – or have an extra two years added to their sentence.

Since 1992, Swaziland has lost just three rhinos to poachers. However, King Mswati III recently decided to give even more protection to his prize assets and in January gave Ted Reilly, chief executive of the company who runs the country’s National Parks, a royal warrant. Reilly and the park rangers are now immune from prosecution if they shoot, or even kill, a poacher.

Swaziland’s shoot-to-kill policy also extends to people caught trying to take smaller animals, and recently several locals have been killed trying to catch warthogs to feed their families.

Are these simply strong policies to fight the evil that is poaching, or are we seeing a return to the days of Norman lords stringing up Saxon peasants for hunting deer on the King’s land? Where economics, ethics, politics and sectional interests clash, nothing is ever straightforward. *

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