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South Africa Tests Drones to Thwart Rhino Poaching


Wildlife and nature reserves are major revenue-generating assets in South Africa and numerous other countries. Despite setbacks and an ongoing parade of problems, South Africa continues to be an innovator when it comes to wildlife and nature conservation. The nation is known for pioneering the application of new methods and use of new technology that is often adopted across the African continent and around the world.

Kruger National Park is the “crown jewel” in South Africa's 20-strong constellation of national parks, which are managed by SANParks (South Africa National Parks). The park spans over 1.9 million hectares (~4.7 million acres) and accommodates more than 1.4 million visitors annually. Kruger is also home to two of the largest wild populations of “big five” mammals -- the African elephant and the white and black rhinos -- which face particularly serious threats from poachers.

SANParks on March 19 announced it is evaluating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aka drones, for anti-poaching efforts. UAVs are being tested in the field as one of “a suite of anti-poaching initiatives supported by the Rhino Protection Programme (RPP)” and made possible by funding from the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries and other donors, SANParks explains in a news release.

UAVs and night-flying helicopters enlisted to stamp out poaching

Testing of UAVs as part of SANParks' efforts to thwart rhino poaching in Kruger National Park is expected to last a full year. The project coincides with SANParks taking delivery of a new Airbus AS-350 B3e helicopter, its second, and this one with night-flying capability.

Both the Airbus night-flying helicopter purchase and the UAV anti-poaching test project were made possible by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, totaling $37.7 million South African rand (~US$3.18 million). Howard G. is the middle son of famed investor and billionaire Warren Buffet.

The grant from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation follows on an initial US$21.5 million grant made last year by the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries for SANParks to establish “air mobility capability” in Kruger. That grant enabled SANParks to purchase its first Airbus helicopter.

“In addition to increasing our current flight crew capability of flying at night, the helicopter is expected to improve our response time in dealing with contacts and other incidents in the Park,” SANParks' Board Chair Kuseni Dlamini commented. “We have just taken delivery of this second helicopter and we are commissioning it today (19 March 2015) to go into action in the fight against rhino poaching.
“In accordance with the much needed aerial support to the anti-poaching teams around the clock, this helicopter will further assist in quick tactical response particularly at night where we have been lacking due to limited resources, therefore it is only proper to thank HGBF for bringing this much needed resource in our fight to curb poaching.”

Shining a light on South Africa's wild rhinos and anti-poaching efforts

In the foreword to SANParks' 2013/2014 annual report, South African minister of environmental affairs, Ms. B.E.E. Molewa, highlighted the persistent problems poaching poses for South African and world wildlife heritage. She also gave SANParks some much needed public recognition for its success in stamping out poaching in South Africa's national parks.

“SANParks and the country have been under tremendous pressure in the last six years through the on-going onslaught spearheaded by international syndicates against our rhino populations,” she stated.
“I want to commend SANParks for the sterling work in attempts to combat poaching, in especially the Kruger National Park, under seriously trying conditions. The anti-poaching activities have ensured that in real terms the growth of poaching year on year continues to decline with the difference between 2012 and 2013 sitting at 42.6 percent while the previous year’s difference was at 68.7 percent.

“Though the numbers of poaching continue to grow even this reduction gives us hope that a better day is yet to come. Growth in arrests of suspected poachers and the ever increasingly stiffer sentences meted against convicted poachers are some of the measures which are hoped will pay dividends in the not so distant future.”

Minister Molewa also highlighted the crucial role poverty alleviation and education play in helping stamp out wildlife poaching. “Linked to the issue of challenges like rhino poaching amongst the myriad of social ills our country has to battle with is our work with communities, to bring hope, to educate and to build active constituencies,” she wrote. “I am proud to note that SANParks continues to improve its efforts to reach out to communities through its extensive list of initiatives.”

*Image credits: 1), 2) SANParks; 3) Prad's Press

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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