(This is a sequel to an earlier post)

What is the most challenging question about using UAVs to fight poaching in Africa?

If you ask the team at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), the answer is “When and where to fly them?”

The research group has developed a new multifaceted approach against poaching, based on the premise that random supervision simply cannot work, given the size of the territories to cover.

Observing predatory patterns, the ACS team noted that:

  • A significant proportion of poaching occurs around a full moon, when poachers can see their preys more easily.
  • The prime time for killings is between 6:30 and 8:00 p.m.
  • Poaching almost always happens “within 160 meters of a road”, and
  • “85 percent of poaching incidents occur in areas of open, low shrub, or savannah areas”

After crunching the data, the ACS team developed analytical models that showed “with near 90% certainty” where rhinos are likely to be on a particular evening.

Then they combined high-resolution satellite imagery with big data – including moon phases, weather, poaching locations, and info from rhinos' satellite ankle trackers – and applied their own algorithms to create analytical models of how animals, poachers and rangers moved simultaneously.

Knowing where the key players are likely to be greatly helped decide “where to deploy rangers to best protect animals and thwart poachers.”

“The real game changer, writes Professor Thomas Snitch, is our use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, which we have been flying in Africa since May 2013. We’ve found that drones, combined with other more established technology tools, can greatly reduce poaching – but only in those areas where rangers on the ground are at the ready to use our data.”

This may indicate a nascent trend, since two researchers, Michael J. Shaffer and Joseph A. Bishop, “modelled drone flight paths for a 23.2 km high risk region near the centre of Tsavo East National Park,” starting at locations with the highest potential poaching risk.

The conclusions of their experiment, published in Tropical Conservation Science (PDF 2.52 MB), states that “The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is having a profound effect on conservationists’ abilities to detect and stop poachers.”

As Robert Breare, from Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy put it: “To really see the benefit of the drone, both financially and operationally, we need to look at it as a total conservation solution with many roles and not only as an anti-poaching solution.”

Not a Panacea

One National Geographic article comes to the conclusion that although drones have “amazing potential,” “they aren’t a silver bullet or a panacea.”

As it notes, the UMIACS solution, for example, which was highly successful in a region of South Africa that had been losing up to 19 rhinos a month, requires experts who can “analyze data about past poaching events, generate algorithms to map out flight plans, operate and maintain the drones, and analyse and transmit the data to ranger forces.”

The article observes that most African countries lack “well-trained and well-equipped ranger forces to intervene and make arrests,” that the difficult African terrain still represents a technical challenge for many drones, and that poaching is spreading to smaller animals such as pangolins, and it wonders how effective drones will be against widespread poaching outside parks and reserves.

Besides extolling the benefits of more “cost-effective” means such as proactive intelligence-driven programs that use investigative skills to identify poachers, the article mentions the Ruvuma Elephant Project, in Mozambique, which strives to address “the root causes of community participation in poaching,” and another initiative in Malawi based on systematic anti-poaching training.

Again, these observations show that poaching is a complex, multifaceted issue that requires a comprehensive approach.

As we explained in a previous post, each situation requires a thorough analysis, and the decision to use drones or not – and if yes, which ones – should be a part of an overall strategy based on the specific situation and the means at hand.

Arsha Consulting precisely focuses on distributing industrial surveillance UAVs that can cover large territories such as natural parks and reserves.

Luis Robert | Analyst- Arsha Consulting

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