Drones Could Help Save African Elephants and Rhinos

Malawi, Wildlife, poaching, South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, poaching, endangered species, Africa, Leon Kaye, drones
Elephants in Malawi are increasingly under attack by poachers.

Despite local and international conservation efforts, the number of African elephants is decreasing at an alarming rate. Poaching, habitat loss and climate change are all threatening this beloved icon with extinction.

Thankfully more attention is being paid to this crisis. The Guardian is leading such efforts with a commitment to cover the plight of the elephants aggressively over the next year.

The symbolism of this effort is obvious, as is the environmental need, since the locals who live alongside this intelligent and complex mammal do their share to conserve the land. Many citizens in Africa, from Kenya to South Africa to Ethiopia, rely on the elephants for their livelihoods as eco-tourism helped prevent them from falling into poverty.

One study suggested an elephant kept alive is 76 times more valuable than if it is dead. Hence the increased use of technologies, such as drones, could help save these animals and encourage sustainable development.

One organization, Air Shepherd, recently launched operations in Malawi. This Lindbergh Foundation project raised over $300,000 last year in a crowdfunding campaign that aimed to enlist the use of drones to take on elephant and rhinoceros poachers. The drones work with the organization’s use of algorithms to monitor poaching sites and try to predict when an illegal kill may take place. Air Shepherd also received grants from Google and WWF in order to develop the technologies and tactics necessary to prevent poaching in Malawi’s remote regions.

After extensive lobbying, the organization received permission from the Malawian government to operate its drones in protected areas. Malawi has already found some success harnessing drones to deliver HIV/AIDS medications to isolated towns and villages.

Other NGOs also see potential drones as an anti-poaching tool. London-based Save the Rhino, for example, suggests the use of drones can help park rangers track animals’ movements as well as those of poachers. The largest roadblock, however, is cost, as both the equipment and the technology that complements the hardware are expensive to buy and pricey to operate.

Drones can have a role assisting conservationists’ efforts, but they are not a silver bullet that will finally end poaching. As National Geographic’s Oliver Payne pointed out, drones require much infrastructure support and skilled workers who can manage this technology. They can only fly for limited periods of time, which in turn restricts the amount of ground they can cover. And of course, as research suggests, organized crime now has a larger role in wildlife poaching, and those responsible for pillaging the environment have their own set of tools to advance their criminal enterprises.

Complicating these efforts are the fact that several countries, including Kenya, have banned drones out of concerns over safety and security. Nevertheless, the continued poaching of African wildlife has increased rapidly in recent years, behooving local authorities and communities to use every tool possible in order to ensure these animals’ survival – as well as preserve their own economic security in the long run.

Image credit: Paul Williams/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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