How Drones Are Saving Endangered Species

Dave Johnson

Drones tend to get a bad rap. When they turn up in the news, it’s often regarding their role in military combat. Or perhaps a clueless drone pilot interfered with fire fighters battling a forest blaze, or accidentally flew one into traffic. But drones aren’t inherently evil or annoying—they’re simply tools, and sometimes they’re even a force for positive change.

Consider, for example, the role of drones in combating the illegal poaching of endangered animals. Air Shepherd, a South Africa-based conservation surveillance program operated by the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, uses a fleet of drones to spot illegal poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses as it happens. Air Shepherd’s crew then notifies rangers patrolling these animals’ protected habitats who can respond in real time.

It’s difficult to overestimate the challenges of illegal poaching, which according to the Lindbergh Foundation, has been rising exponentially throughout this decade. If poaching continues unchecked, elephants and rhinos could be extinct within 10 years. The risk is clearly illustrated by the loss of elephant population in the latter half of the 20th century: According to National Geographic, in 1979, there were 1.3 million elephants spread across central, eastern, and southern Africa. By 2007, that number dwindled to between 470,000 and 690,000 elephants.

Most of these animals aren’t being killed for meat; instead, poachers saw off just the tusks and horns, leaving the massive bodies behind to rot. Rhino horns, for example, are turned into a powder that has supposed mystical properties and is used as an additive in drugs and alcohol. Elephant tusks are converted into ivory trinkets.

Air Shepherd, which is currently active in South Africa, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, is trying to tackle this crisis by employing drone strategies used by few, if any, other organizations. The program’s fixed-wing, airplane-style drones (as opposed to the more common quadcopter) operate in very difficult conditions, both beyond the visual range of the drone operator and at night. The drones rely on infrared night-vision cameras and GPS positioning to zero in on illegal activity.

“There are only a handful of people in the world flying drones the way we do,” says Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, CEO of UAV & Drone Solutions, the firm hired to run Air Shepherd’s drone operations. “It takes lots of training. … It’s a minimum 200 hours of flying before we check them out as fully compliant.”

Drone operators piloting at night are particularly useful in catching poachers. Because poachers can be well armed and unpredictable, says Werdmuller Von Elgg, wildlife refuge and national park rangers traditionally have only worked to catch them during the day. “Poachers, on the other hand, work at night, where they’re relatively safe under cover of darkness,” he says. “They shoot the animals late in the day, then swoop in and take the tusks off after dark. They’re in and out before they can be caught.”

To give refuge and park workers enough of an upper hand to successfully squelch these night raids, Air Shepherd launches nocturnal runs in locations where poaching is known to occur, acting as the rangers’ eyes in the sky. Without the drones, rangers would need to patrol the dark landscape without any reconnaissance data, which means they could stumble upon poachers unexpectedly, leading to life-threatening situations. Werdmuller Von Elgg says, “The perpetrators think they can’t be seen. You’re flying [the drones] at night, completely quiet. They have no way to know you’re there, watching for them.”

The battery-powered drones can stay in flight longer than quadcopters—about two hours per flight. Infrared video is sent back to the operators, so they can call rangers to intercept when poachers are spotted. The rangers are pre-positioned in the drone’s area of operation, and leap into action upon word that the operators see poaching activity.

While Air Shepherd’s approach makes missions safer for rangers, Werdmuller Von Elgg says his drone staff has also been threatened by pachyderm-hunting criminals. Generally, he says, when his people are piloting from within well-guarded mobile command centers, “poachers want to stay as far away from us as possible.” But this isn’t a problem that stops at the end of the workday. “Syndicates and gangs have come up to us outside the national parks,” he says. “We’ve had two cases of intimidation so far, and our guys were shaken up pretty badly by it. But we went on with our jobs, and nothing has come of it.”

Thankfully, Air Shepherd’s risks appear to be worthwhile. According to the program, when drones started patrolling a 20-kilometer patch of KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa that had seen about 20 rhino deaths per month, poaching dropped to zero. Indeed, for the past six months, not a single rhino has been killed in that area.

Of course, that’s far from the end of the story. Poachers can learn to steer clear of areas being surveilled, and just move their operations elsewhere. Africa is an enormous continent, and Air Shepherd has limited resources; they currently operate just a handful of sites.

Despite poachers’ persistence, Werdmuller Von Elgg says progress is being made, and Air Shepherd is proud of its record, able to clearly demonstrate dramatic reductions in poaching wherever it has set up camp. The program is now raising funds to expand its reach to wildlife areas in Zambia, Botswana, and Mozambique.

Outside the Lindbergh Foundation’s funding, Air Shepherd raises money in a number of ways, like its 2015 Indiegogo campaign, which raised just over $300,000, and through partners like Elephant Cooperation, a conservation nonprofit that strongly supports the drone program’s operations.

Scott Struthers, founder of Elephant Cooperation, says his organization is enthusiastic about the potential for drones in anti-poaching surveillance. Struthers says Elephant Cooperation is growing quickly, “and the Air Shepherd program is a big part of that for us. We are anxious to see more drones in the air.”