By Chris Joyce
A crowd of wildlife rangers gathered on a woody hillside in Nepal last year to try something they'd never done before. A man held what looked like an overgrown toy airplane in his right hand, arm cocked as if to throw it into the sky. As his fellow rangers cheered, he did just that. A propeller took over, sending it skyward.
The craft was an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone, though not the military kind. Its wingspan was about 7 feet, and it carried only a video camera that filmed the forest below.
The flight was a test run sponsored and videotaped by the World Wildlife Fund. "It's a cat-and-mouse game when it comes to getting ahead of poachers," explains Matt Lewis, a WWF wildlife biologist who helped set up the test. Lewis says poachers are getting more sophisticated. "When poachers are starting to use night vision technology, and when poachers are starting to use tranquilizer drugs to silently dart an animal and cut off its horns at night and get out at night ... it's incumbent upon us to find a better solution to address that."
Black-market prices for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn have reached record highs, and that's pushed wildlife poaching to a fever pitch. In turn, conservationists and governments that profit from wildlife tourism are reaching for a high-tech tool to stop the killing: the drone.
Lewis says drones could tip the odds back in favor of the rangers. So the World Wildlife Fund is testing simple, inexpensive versions of these aerial vehicles in Nepal and Namibia using a $5 million grant from Google. More....