Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that South Africa is considering loosening its regulations and allowing for new domestic trade in and export of rhino horns. Critics argue that opening up even limited trade in rhino horn will create a boom in black market exports, which already plague the country. In Kruger National Park, which has been called "ground zero for poachers" by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it is estimated that 12 armed gangs are involved in poaching big game at any given time, killing as many as 3 rhinos a day for their horns. Today, only about 20,000 rhinos remain in the country, representing close to 80% of Africa's total rhino population.
Despite these rather grim figures, Rhino poaching is actually down 10% from 2015. Authorities attribute this reduction to increased security measures that resulted in 680 arrests last year. The country's 19 parks cover over 180,386 acres, and drones are starting to play an essential role in the on-going struggle against poachers.
Monitoring such a large area is impossible on the ground, and 80% of poaching is perpetrated at night, when it is difficult to see such activity and dangerous for park rangers to respond. Using airplanes to obtain aerial footage is expensive and dangerous when compared with using drones, which can be mounted with night vision cameras and thermal sensors to remotely pinpoint and investigate unwanted activity.
Last year, the Lindbergh Foundation's Air Shepard program teamed up with the South African-based company UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS), to begin testing the use of drones in the park. The pilot program was very successful and is currently ready for expansion. Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, head of drone operations for Air Shepherd, explains that in addition to being able to see criminal activity and stop it before it takes place, the very presence of drone patrols actively diminishes criminal entry. He reports that while drones were flying in Kruger, the number of poaching incidents fell from 10 to15 per month to zero. He saw the same effect when he flew night drones in KwaZulu.
Von Elgg and his team use a mix of fixed-wing and copter drones in their missions. The long-range fixed-wing drones allow rangers to see large areas from above. The copter drones are used for closer investigation and even intimidation -- as they typically carry bright lights and sirens to scare off would-be-poachers and their target animals before a kill is made.
If South Africa does loosen its regulations, programs protecting rhinos from would-be criminals will become even more vital. Von Elgg and the Air Shepard team are hopeful that their early results will lead to more funding and improved anti-poaching measures throughout South Africa. These new methods are also ideal for many other areas in the world where endangered species live. This is one application where even a few drones can make a significant difference for both the animals and the people who risk their lives to protect them.