By Patricia Raxter, Rory Young
Across the globe poaching and wildlife crime are decimating species, from charismatic megafauna like African elephants and rhinos to small and adorable pangolins to brightly colored parrots. An estimated 100,000 African elephants were poached for their ivory from 2011 to 2013. Since 2007, rhino poaching has increased 9,000 percent.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, Earth has lost 50 percent of its wildlife in the past 40 years. While habitat loss and environmental degradation clearly take their toll, poaching for human consumption has emerged as a key factor driving this loss.
As organized crime has penetrated the illegal wildlife trade, it has gotten more sophisticated and almost impossible to stop. We’re in the midst of an environmental crime crisis which could, if left unchecked, have irreversible consequences.
Increasingly, conservationists and policymakers are turning to technology solutions to combat wildlife crime, including drones, satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis, hidden cameras, GPS location devices, and apps.
In some regions, new technologies are already making an impact. For example, organizations seeking demand reduction are skillfully using such technologies to change the habits of Chinese consumers, the world’s largest market for wildlife products.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has reached hundreds of millions of Chinese through social media applications like Wechat. IFAW’s augmented reality elephant, “Laura,” is spreading awareness of wildlife through “live” interactions with Chinese consumers, most of whom have never seen a living elephant.
At the supply end of the chain in Africa, where elephants are poached by the tens of thousands each year and rhino poaching has reached historic levels, drones are increasingly being pushed as an integral part of the solution.
Anti-poaching drones have already been deployed in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia.
Tech challenges staged by the U.S. government, private industry, and conservation organizations aim to inspire thinkers and technologists to crack some of the difficulties associated with drone use: their operation in austere terrain, their energy and power needs, range limitations, streaming capabilities, and cost.
Poachers and Rangers: An Arms Race
The push to adopt new technologies to combat poaching arises from what has been characterized as an arms race between poachers and wildlife rangers. It’s not uncommon for poachers to be armed with automatic weapons, silencers, copious amounts of ammunition, and even night vision goggles. They may even have access to satellite phones and hand-held GPS devices to coordinate with traffickers and stash trophies.
Some poachers, like the Sudanese Janjaweed and other heavily armed gangs on horseback, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and RENAMO, have been trained in military tactics, enhancing their capabilities and intensifying the threat to park rangers and local communities.
Perhaps the most highly developed and tested drone program, to combat rhino poaching in South Africa, was created at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).
Working with AirShephard, a nonprofit focused on aerial solutions to the poaching crisis, UMIACS cut rhino poaching entirely in one area in South Africa that previously had lost as many as 19 rhinos a month.
The program combines big data analytics and satellite imagery to understand better how poachers, wildlife, and rangers use the environment and which factors increase or decrease the likelihood an animal will be poached at a specific time and place.
To predict when and where poaching will occur, the analytics rely on algorithms that take into account such details as the phases of the moon, road networks, water holes, past poaching incidents, and the satellite-tracked movements of animals.
New data are acquired daily from drones, tour operators, rangers on patrol, and GPS collars on individual animals. In aggregrate, the analytics reveal patterns of poaching attacks and can predict with 90 percent accuracy where poachers will strike.
According to UMIACS, most rhino poaching occurs near a roadway on or near the full moon and between 6:30 and 8:30 at night.
Using this information, rangers are pre-deployed to areas holding rhinos and other vulnerable animals. When the drone spots potential poachers, it signals a command center that alerts rangers, who immediately can move in to prevent animals from being killed and arrest the criminals.
Drones Not a Silver Bullet
These tools have amazing potential, but they aren’t a silver bullet or a panacea. The usefulness of drones for tracking poachers in real time is limited by several factors.
Drones require skilled operators, significant infrastructure support, and robust and voluminous data.
The powerful UMIACS package tested in South Africa involved a team of outside experts to: analyze data about past poaching events, generate algorithms to map out flight plans, operate and maintain the drones, and analyze and transmit the data to ranger forces.
Also needed, and sorely lacking in many African countries, if drone programs are to succeed: well-trained and well-equipped ranger forces to intervene and make arrests.
It’s not uncommon for ranger forces to lack vehicles, weapons, communications equipment, and even basic supplies like water bottles and boots. In some countries, rangers go months without being paid. Most important, rangers often don’t get essential basic training.
There are other constraints on drones as tools to fight poaching. They can fly only for short periods, which limits their coverage area. Although they perform well in open terrain, they’re much less effective in densely forested habitats. They don’t do well in rain, and dust and grit can hobble them.
To be truly effective, drones need thermal imaging capabilities to spot poachers hiding in the bush, sophisticated imaging technology to scan and zoom in on the land, and to be able to fly at altitudes where they can’t easily be seen. Boosting their capabilities in these ways is very costly.
Even if the software is donated, the whole package—the drones themselves, their operators, and the control station—can amount to $500,000 a year. Funding for such operations simply doesn’t exist in most parks and wildlife areas in Africa.
AirShephard is now trying to raise money to fund 40 to 50 teams across southern Africa. At the low end, these could run to $20 million a year.
Before conservation dollars are thrown at drone technologies, another question must be asked: How effective are they at stopping poaching of animals other than iconic megafauna like elephants and rhinos? More....