The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has launched a UAV project in Namibia (Picture: Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)
�??Rhinos are on the absolute precipice,�?? says Steve Roest, head of the ShadowView Foundation, an organisation that provides unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, for conservation and humanitarian relief operations.
�??In Africa, it�??s about rhino and elephant. We�??re getting requests from all over Africa. UAVs have now become cost-effective enough that they can provide rangers with a really good tool.�??
In skies across Africa and elsewhere, drones �?? better known for their controversial military uses, which have seen many innocent civilians killed in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan �?? are being sent in to help protect some of the world�??s most endangered animals.
ShadowView helps operate systems in South Africa, Uganda and in Australia�??s Ningaloo Reef, with plans to set up in Malawi too. The UAVs are different from the high-altitude, multi-million pound predator drones used in military situations, but with similar technologies and designs. Because they�??re quiet and fly high above the land, the UAVs don�??t disturb animals on the ground. A full system can cost between £11,000 and £23,000.
Drones cover large areas of coastline or national parks that rangers cannot manage on foot, monitoring poaching and the animals�?? movements and also documenting evidence.
Roest said: �??Putting a camera in the air, having live telemetry and thermal and day cameras feeding back to your operations is enormously valuable. It means you use less resources, you spend less time flailing around in the bush after things that may not be there. You can identify targets. You can track targets when you�??ve identified them. It�??s a marvellous tool. But I don�??t want to overplay it because I know how difficult it is for rangers on the ground. I don�??t want to say, �??Put UAVs in their hands and suddenly they�??re going to save all the rhinos�?�.�??
However, the idea of using drones to protect endangered species has already taken off.
Crawford Allan is head of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and has been working for the past year with the tourist board in Namibia to set up �??eyes in the sky�?? or UAVs capable of daytime and night-time surveillance.
The illegal wildlife trade is the fifth largest illicit trade in the world, estimated at £12bn a year, according to the WWF.
�??Technology�??s just one of many tools to fight poaching,�?? said Allan. �??Fighting extremely well-organised and ruthless poachers backed by powerful syndicates requires excellent collaboration, preparation and training. It�??s a huge tool in our arsenal to help protect endangered species like elephants, rhinos and other wildlife.�??
But are UAVs worth the high cost?
�??Technology is a tool �?? it�??s how you use it that counts,�?? said Allan. �??Anti-poaching work is still about people in the field, boots on the ground. The wardens made it clear that the effective use of the technology is part of an overall strategy.
�??The Namibian wardens are very excited about this project. They�??re keen to see it being used around the country, because there are a great variety of applications for it, with anti-poaching work being just one.�??
In Europe, drones are being used to monitor large areas of the Mediterranean Sea looking for fishing boats illegally using driftnets that indiscriminately kill marine wildlife.
�??The UAV project enables us to have eyes in the sky and gives the possibility to monitor areas not readily accessible to our people on the ground,�?? said Wietse van der Werf, founder of The Black Fish conversation group. �??We operated a UAV quadcopter last summer along the north coast of Sicily in an area which is roughly 250km of coastline. Our normal �??citizen inspectors�?? often have only limited access but UAVs can give a quick overview of which vessels are docked where, what kind of netting is stored or being used.�??
But shouldn�??t this kind of activity be the responsibility of police and marine authorities, rather than local crime-fighting volunteers?
�??The investigating of fishing crime is in the hands of the official authorities,�?? said van der Werf. �??Unfortunately, in different areas around the Mediterranean, corruption is widespread and enforcement rare. With dwindling fish populations and increased threats to the marine environment, we feel compelled to act. People power combined with technological innovation is making revolutionary changes.�??
However, there are issues with putting flying cameras in the sky.
�??There�??s a concern about air traffic accidents and collisions,�?? said Roest. �??We try and do things to an even higher standard than current legislation. The legislation�??s very difficult because it�??s such a new technology that regulatory bodies are a little bit behind and trying to catch up.�??
It�??s also possible cameras could be used to spy on people.
�??I fully support the idea of rigorous privacy laws and legislation that means certain areas shouldn�??t be flown over with drones or model aircraft that carry cameras,�?? said Roest. �??But I don�??t think people�??s concerns about what cameras might see means we should never fly drones with cameras.�??
He believes drones have great potential to do good.
�??Everything gets misused but you legislate, you try and keep a lid on it and you try to maximise the benefits, and the benefits are enormous,�?? he said.
�??We�??re working on technology to deliver defibrillators and rescue packages to people in mountains, all sorts of stuff with drones. There are all sorts of things the future holds for this, which is very exciting and beneficial for human beings.�??
For more information on UAVs and conservation, go to CuriousAnimal.com