The Game War: Can Surveillance Drones (Really) Curb Poaching?
Any idea how much the horn of a rhinoceros goes for, in the so-called right places?
Would US$60,000 US a kilo – or about $250,000 for a large specimen – sound exaggerated? Actually, these figures are from 2012: it seems that a sizeable rhino horn can now fetch as much as $500,000 in certain Asian markets, e.g. Vietnam.
All in the name of a superstition that provides poachers with a powerful incentive with devastating effects. Their criminal activities threaten not only Africa's wildlife tourism industry, but the very existence of entire populations: Three rhinos die every day, and an elephant is killed every 15 minutes (a pair of elephant tusks can reach US$125,000).
It could be called “the Game War” – a latent one that is anything but a game. In 2014, the Game Rangers Association of Africa estimated that wildlife trafficking – an “industry” that some estimate at $10-billion – had claimed the lives of about 1,000 rangers in 10 years.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in 2012, in South Africa's Kruger National Park alone up to 12 gangs were active. Many are equipped with “helicopters, night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles.”
In recent years, a number of experiments have tested drone technology to counter poacher activity. Infrared cameras mounted on drones are used to detect living things through foliage at night and transfer black and white videos. Theoretically, rangers equipped with geo-specific location data can intervene when suspicious activity is observed.
But can this drone technology hold its promises and effectively reduce poaching?
Turning to Drone Technology – A Few Experiments
- In 2012, the WWF received $5 million from Google to buy unarmed super-light drones to track down African wildlife poachers. Later versions were to integrate ground-based analytical databases and algorithms to generate predictive analytics of poachers’ activities.
A Google/WWF experiment in Nepal deployed in Chitwan National Park $2,500 drones GPS-enabled FPVRaptors equipped with cameras that could fly for up to 50 minutes.
(Photo Copyright: World Wildlife Fund)
There was to also be a deployment in Africa, but after the initial announcements in 2012 it is unclear where or even if the experiment was actually carried out. One article did mention that according to the WWF, “logistical and legal” considerations, including U.S. export laws, may have been an issue.
- In another experiment, the Lindbergh Foundation spearheaded an Air Shepherd drone program against poachers in South Africa. The partnership included South Africa’s national Peace Parks Foundation and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. Fixed-wing multi-rotor UAVs equipped with infrared cameras were used to monitor poachers at night, when they are the most active.
- In 2014, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation made a 255-million-rand donation (about $16,5 million US) to test anti-poaching technology in Kruger National Park, in partnership with Nature Conservation Trust, South African National Parks (SANParks) and a South African public benefit organisation (PBO)
(Photo Copyright: Bernard DUPONT)
- Two organizations, Conservation Drones and Ready-to-Drone, recently trained staff at the Jane Goodall Institute, at the Tchimpounga Nature Reserve, in the Congo, to show them how to fly a new mapping and surveying drone.
- Tanzania is to deploy drones in Tarangire National Park to counter an illegal activity that has eliminated about 80,000 of the country’s elephants and threatens to jeopardize its multibillion dollar tourism industry. The six-month program is to use a drone with day and night capability, the Super Bat DA-50. However, this initiative is challenged by the Tanzania National Parks Authority (Tanapa), the custodian of all 16 Tanzanian parks, which wants to maintain a 2014 ban on UAVs in the parks.
(Photo Copyright: Martin UAV )
Typical UAVs for these operations have a wingspan of 1-2 metres, with flight times of 60 to 30 minutes, ranges of 30 to 50 km within line-of-sight (LOS), and are outfitted with ordinary cameras, thermal-imaging cameras or night-vision technology to acquire high-resolution photographs, high-definition video footage and produce 2D and 3D maps.
What Are the Findings?
A paper in Tropical Conservation Science states that it is estimated that one drone is as effective as 50 rangers. Using infrared sensors and high definition cameras, drones can be used to spot both wildlife and poachers from greater distances and at night. The same publication indicates that “conventional aerial surveillance of wildlife can cost up to US$50,000 dollars a week, whereas a drone costs as little as US $3,000 per week.”
UAVs As Deterrents
Drones can act as “fantastic deterrents”, Robert Breave, from Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy told the BBC. As Crawford Allan of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, explained to Fast Company, it’s important that poachers know that they can be observed from the sky.
According to the Lindbergh Foundation poaching dropped when drones were deployed during the testing phase of the Air Shepherd program.
The question is how long this deterrent effect will last if poachers note that the monitoring is not followed up with “boots on the ground.”
UAVs as Wildlife Monitoring Tools
UAVs can also be used for wildlife monitoring and population estimation exercises. US research projects presently monitor bird populations with drones. Elephants travel up to 40 miles a day, and drones can help monitor vast habitats. For example, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, in Indonesia, is using drones to fly above the tree canopy to observe nests and monitor populations, a time-consuming and difficult task for forest rangers.
In the light of these and other experiments, however, a number of issues have emerged.
For example, African reserves need UAVs that:
- Are powerful enough to transport equipment such as thermal-imaging technology
- Are rugged and responsive enough for the strong winds, hilly terrain and other unfavourable conditions that are typical of the African environment
- Have enough battery life to support ranges of six to eight hours (lower priced drones can fly for about two hours only)
- Can LOS communications for appropriate distances
Also, an adequately equipped long-range drone can cost over US$250,000, which is much more than the average African reserve can afford.
(Photo Copyright: James Temple)
- Some fear that conservation drones might be misused. This is why Kenya made it mandatory in January 2015 to obtain permission from the Ministry of Defence to fly a drone, while Namibia has banned the use of drones in all its national parks.
- Skilled operators are required to leverage drone capabilities.
- Just like any technology, a drone is a double-edged sword: one must consider how one will prevent the poachers from bribing drone operators to obtain game location details.
So what is the present status of drones, in terms of their actual effectiveness? To understand this, we need to take a step back – or up.
How Technologies Evolve – A Bird’s Eye Point of View
Popular new technologies typically go through three cycles:
- Novelty and Hope. When a new technology is introduced, it often creates a surge of hope that it will finally make it possible to solve (or even dissolve) an entire issue.
- Disillusion. After flocking to the new technology in droves, some players start developing a critical view; inevitably, some of them come to the conclusion that the said technology is “nothing but a fad” – an opinion that they’ve usually held from the start but which could not be heard above the din of the ‘groupthink’.
- Realism. If it survives the test of time, the (no longer) new technology moves into its maturity phase, where it is seen as a tool among others, one that has its place if it is correctly used and integrated with past and present experience – and as a tool that is no longer expected to make the entire issue disappear as if by magic.
One could say that drone technology, in terms of its effectiveness against poaching, presently seems to between the second and the third phase. Some are starting to realize that drones have been seen as a “silver bullet” solution to the poaching crisis, while others, at the other end of the spectrum, dismiss them as a mere “distraction” and a waste of time – “Nothing replaces a good dog,” they will say.
Others yet are more persistent (or have more faith – or a greater vested interest) and decide to mix old and new.
Integrating Science, Technology, and Strategy
In the Tropical Conservation Science study referred to above, Michael J. Shaffer and Joseph A. Bishop decided to fight poachers by developing drone flight paths based on minute observation of their operating patterns – which is basically what hunters do when they set out to catch a prey, i.e. find out as much as they can about its habits and habitat.
The goal of their study was to “provide a more efficient management method than randomly patrolling entire habitat areas.”
Using point pattern analyses of elephant poaching in the Tsavo National Parks area in Kenya, Shaffer and Bishop identified optimal locations for surveillance or guard stations.
They used autopilot software – i.e. free open source flight planning software, ArduPilot Mega Planner – to model drone flight paths required to cover a single poaching area, based on poaching patterns and ranger positions, starting at locations with the highest risk potential.
In order to determine the total surface covered, researchers considered variables such as drone range, cruising altitude, cruising speed, and flight time at cruising speed – as well as the field of view width of the camera, for systematic and comprehensive coverage.
Researchers say their technique “can be used virtually anywhere.”
Integration, Integration, Integration
Actually, as for any tool or technology, the decision to use or not to use UAVs – and which ones to use, eventually – should stem from a standard strategic decision-making process based on three principles:
- A protection technology must be part of an overall protection strategy, developed to overcome specific challenges and attain specific goals with the means at hand.
- The choice of the technology should be based on its effectiveness within the system – in other words, one must ask whether a UAV is the best tool in this specific situation, and if yes, which type of UAVs will be the best fit?
- Although they are “autonomous” aircraft, UAVs do not fly on their own. They require support technology and human resources. Therefore, it can be argued that we need to shift our focus from the UAV to the UAS – Unmanned Aerial System – which includes not only the aircraft, but also its payload, a ground control station, ground support equipment (launching equipment, monitoring stations, software, etc.).
(Photo Copyright: Harvey Barrison)
“A Drone and a Dog”
Even though there still are discussions about the effectiveness of UAVs in the war against poaching, any effort to integrate drones in this fight should take into consideration a number of principles.
First of all, one needs to choose the UAV that is right for the task. Secondly, a UAV per se is useless: it needs to be deployed within a specific strategy.
Third, one cannot underestimate the importance of an integrated approach that sees UAV technology as one component of an entire protection system. Alongside drones, for example, the WWF is experimenting with “night-vision cameras, heat imagery systems, and GPS tagging of animals.”
Finally, our research at Arsha Consulting also indicates that game reserves need several types of UAVs: very short range, short range and medium-range. Medium-range drones (20 to 100 km) with LOS (line of sight communications), in particular, are still very difficult to come by – this is one thing we are working on.
As Professor Tom Snitch, from the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, reminds us, someone on the ground has to use the data collected by the drones.
And that someone, we may add, must be ready to go out after the poachers – ideally with a good dog.
Luis Robert | Analyst – Arsha Consulting
(Cover Image Photo Copyright: Hein waschefort)