​Protecting rhinos and elephants- with drones

The poaching of wild animals like rhinos and elephants in Africa have reached alarming proportions and the numbers of killed animals rises dramatically for each year. 1, 215 rhinos were killed in 2014 in South Africa. Drones are now used to locate poachers.

By overlapping high-resolution satellite imageries with loads of big data Thomas Snitch, professor in advanced computer studies at University of Maryland, has initiated the use of drones in combating poachers. His team has created an innovative way of calculating the moves of rhinos.

"The satellite imagery gives us a very precise understanding of the topography and allows us to determine where animals are unlikely to be. This is critical because there is too much space to cover. We need to reduce the amount of territory that the UAVs cover. We look at steepness of the landscape, elevation, available vegetation and water. Breeding areas, etc."

"We then develop models, using as much data that is available, about how the animals and poachers simultaneously move through space and time. Where are they likely to intersect? This knowledge allows us to very specifically decide where to place Rangers and where to fly drones."

The drones equipped with FLIR real-time cameras send imageries to command centers that are in contact with rangers on ground who will be able to act quickly when needed. "We don’t have to find poachers, we just need to know where the rhinos are likely to be", says Thomas Snitch.

From bombers to poachers

The mathematical modeling was initially developed by the US military in the search of IED bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Flight routes for the drones are created with the same technology but own collected data.

80 percent of the world’s rhinos are found in South Africa. The first flights were on May, 2013 at Olifants West in Balule Reserve in South Africa. The UAV flew to on a predetermined route where it immediately spotted a female rhino and her calf. The animals were 30 meters of a major road. Quite immediately a vehicle stopped outside the reserve’s fence and three poachers climbed over. But with the drones the rangers were deployed strategically and the poachers were arrested within minutes.

Question of political will

Although locating poachers has been successful with the use of drones, the method is not widely used in Africa yet. "The biggest issue is gaining permission from African governments to allow us to fly. Over the past two years, countries go back and forth - fly/no fly. I know there are concerns about UAVs flying in national airspace but we are operating in very remote areas at night. There is nothing for us to crash into and no one, other than poachers, are at risk."

According to Thomas Snitch there is an increasing in poaching in Namibia and Botswana. As the number of rhinos and elephants decline in East Africa, the poachers will move west. "We are currently in discussions with Namibia, Zambia and Botswana to begin flights in those nations."

The UAVs are not expensive and I believe there is adequate funding, both from governments and conservation NGOs, to support these operations. It is only a question of political will, says Thomas Snitch.

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm