In hills where Zulu royalty once hunted wildlife, South African conservationists now scan live video from a thermal-imaging camera attached to a drone, looking for heat signatures of poachers stalking
In hills where Zulu royalty once hunted wildlife, South African conservationists now scan live video from a thermal-imaging camera attached to a drone, looking for heat signatures of poachers stalking through the bush to kill rhinos.
The unarmed drone, which resembles a model airplane, flies several miles (kilometers) from a van where an operator toggles a customized video-gaming control, zooming and swiveling the craft's camera. The nocturnal surveillance in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve comes amid international discussion about whether technology, particularly drones, will make a real difference in anti-poaching efforts that often rely on the “boots on the ground” of rangers on patrol.
Everal years ago, drones were touted by some as a silver bullet for conservation, but some experiments have foundered. Even so, drone technology is developing quickly and the aircraft have been used around the world, including:
In Belize, where the Wildlife Conservation Society helped deploy drones to successfully monitor a protected reef area for illegal fishing, according to David Wilkie, director of conservation measures for the group. In Indonesia, where drones have surveyed threatened orangutan habitats. In Africa, where the World Wildlife Fund is exploring the use of drones and other anti-poaching technologies, using funding from Google.
"It's a very dynamic battle space where the poachers are continually responding to advances in technologies," said Arthur Holland Michel, co-director at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Poachers could, for example, seek vegetation cover to try to avoid being spotted by drones or use informants to monitor drone teams and learn when the skies are clear.
"They have great potential," Wilkie said of drones. "I think they're not there yet."
Wilkie said groups with limited budgets often opt for types of drones used by hobbyists. A military-grade, aluminum drone with a powerful engine and sophisticated radar that can look through canopy and detect metal — a poacher's car or motorcycle, for example — could be more effective, he said.
Searching for poachers with drones in Africa's vast wildlife reserves can seem like a needle-in-a-haystack operation. Costs mount, crashes are frequent, equipment breaks down, rain or high wind can scrap a mission and even before operations start, legal and bureaucratic obstacles must often be overcome in countries that tightly regulate airspace.