When you hear the word ‘drone’, your mind will most likely conjure up images of either small consumer-grade drones used by your videographer neighbour or autonomous military-grade drones deployed for surveillance and offensive purposes in conflict zones. However, what is not as commonly known is the use of drones by game reserves in South Africa.
The deployment of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), is one of the technological developments for rhinoceros protection. Drones have practical roles in anti-poaching efforts. They can be used for surveillance, deterrence, and as a frontline response tool.
For surveillance, drones can be used to patrol poaching hot spots or sensitive areas to detect any suspicious activity, and monitor rhinoceros movement and safety. For deterrence, by raising awareness that the area is tightly secured with aerial surveillance, this would turn poachers away because of the increased likelihood of being caught on camera. As a frontline response tool, drones can provide live input on the numbers, locations, and movements of suspected poachers. Such information would enable more efficient and effective ground response to the incident area (Mulero-Pázmány et al., 2014, p. 9).
However, drones have not entirely been the ‘silver bullet’ that conservationists claimed when it was first introduced as anti-poaching equipment. Consumer-grade drones have technological limitations that make them less effective in securing game reserves. They have short battery life of around 30 to 90 minutes, and have to be operated within line-of-sight of the operator (Dean, 2015; Mulero-Pázmány et al., 2014, p. 8; Wall, 2014).
Moreover, a substantial amount is required to invest in drone surveillance. Effective drone surveillance would require multiple drones to sufficiently cover the large area of game reserves over long hours, as well as additional devices such as thermal-imaging cameras to support night patrolling. The amount can be unaffordable for numerous game reserves that are stretching their finances just to sustain rehabilitation and conservation programmes (Nuwer, 2017; Dean, 2015; Bergenas, Stohl, & Georgieff, 2013, p. 8).
Unfortunately, it is possible for such drones to also be used by poachers. The circumstances may be different for them. Their criminal activity in and beyond rhino horn trade rakes in billions of dollars annually, which can easily afford them high-grade drones. Such drones would only assist them in poaching even more swiftly. As a result, this might eventually lead to an ‘arms race’ between game reserves and poachers to acquire the best drone fleet. At this point of time, money is the main way to remain in the race.
Nevertheless, there is reason to remain optimistic about the future of drone surveillance. The rate at which technology is advancing could mean that more affordable drones equipped with thermal-imaging devices could soon be introduced into the market. Indeed, drone technology in wildlife conservation is still relatively young. We should approach it in a critical manner, not to put it down, but to contribute to its greater development.
Bergenas, J., Stohl, R., & Georgieff, A. (2013). The other side of drones: saving wildlife in Africa and managing global crime. conflict trends, 2013(3), 3-9.
Dean, C. (2015). The use of drones in rhino conservation. Save the Rhino International. Retrieved from: https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/thorny_issues/the_use_of_drones_in_rhino_conservation
Nuwer, R. (2017). High Above, Drones Keep Watchful Eyes on Wildlife in Africa. New York Times. 13 March. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/science/drones-africa-poachers-wildlife.html
Mulero-Pázmány, M., Stolper, R., van Essen, L. D., Negro, J. J., & Sassen, T. (2014). Remotely piloted aircraft systems as a rhinoceros anti-poaching tool in africa. PloS One, 9(1), e83873. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083873
Wall, M. (2014). Can drones help tackle Africa's wildlife poaching crisis?. BBC. 21 Jun. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-28132521