Eye in the Sky

By Catherine Wei

Previously, technology and nature have been at odds with each other, resulting in the destruction of wildlife and the rise in poaching. However, drones are modernizing wildlife conservation by providing an eye in the sky to detect poachers and closely examine populations and habitats, ultimately protecting the world's endangered species.

Human technology has accelerated the destruction of wildlife areas, changed the climate, and provided deadly weapons to poachers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 41,415 species are endangered and 16,306 are threatened with extinction. However, the latest drone applications are flipping the script on how technology affects animal conservation by helping scientists track night-time poachers, observe populations of endangered species, and collect up-close data.

Animal poachers target many profitable animals like elephants, rhino, and humpback whales to harvest valuable products from horns to meat. In 2015 alone, more than 30,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks; roughly 3 rhinos and 96 elephants are poached every day. “The fundamental challenge of poaching is that there's more money to be made in killing and selling rare, exotic, and endangered animals than there is in protecting them,” says journalist Kelsey Atherton. Elephant poaching has increased in recent years, with some of Africa’s most notable armed groups hunting the animals to trade valuable ivory tusks for weapons. Much of the ivory is own to China where the ivory is transformed into ornaments, jewelry, and medicine. The price per pound of ivory can be upwards of $1,000.

The effort to reduce poaching is challenging because tracking poachers and monitoring animal conservation is difficult and life-threatening. Conservation groups aiming to catch poachers o en face dangerous weather conditions and even unpredictable attacks from wild animals. The Game Rangers Association of Africa estimates that 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide over the last 10 years while working to protect wildlife and combat armed poachers. In addition, poachers are diffcult to track because they operate at night using the cover of darkness.

With the rise of aerial technology like drones, governments and nonprofits now have the resources to intervene against poachers. Drones allow conservation groups to closely monitor both poachers and protected animals from above. Tanzania and many conservation groups have deployed drones specifically to track animals and identify poachers. Drones can work in tandem with on-the-ground agents to predict when animals are in danger and take protective measures. Park rangers can connect with on-site drone operators by sending location coordinates using GPS chips. Animals can also be GPS tagged, which allows operators to pinpoint location and analyze historical geolocation movements. The use of drones for conservation is increasing, and in 2013, Google awarded the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) $5 million to develop more advanced UAV drone systems specifically designed to meet the needs of conservation groups. WWF hopes to expand its drone operations and integrate UAVs with sensors and tracking so ware to reduce poaching. The conservation organization expects to partner with countries like Namibia and Nepal to provide hardware and training to government offcials.

Drones can scale down the highly pro table trade of illegal animals. The illegal trade of exotic animals generates between $7 - $10 billion annually. For example, a well-preserved rhino can be worth nearly $500,000, with each horn selling for roughly $60,000 per kilogram. The high value of animals like rhinos provides an incentive to poach. The profits gained from selling animals are resources for poachers to purchase more efficient weapons and equipment. In contrast, conservation groups tasked with fighting poaching are often non-profits relying on donations or underfunded government departments. For instance, Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya estimates that their organization has spent $2 million to save white and black rhinoceros. Their conservation technology has to be cheap. Drones provide a cost-efficient approach to animal conservation. Jonathan Downey of Airware, an American venture-funded startup that provides UAVs, estimates that drones intended for anti- poaching cost between $50,000 - $250,000 depending on the specification and battery- operated range of the UAV. Compared to the selling price of animal tusks and meat, the cost of drones is vastly more affordable and while also protecting against losing human life.

In addition to tracking poachers, drones can help scientists study endangered species. Marine biologist David Johnston uses drones’ unique aerial perspective to study humpback whales in Antarctica. Humpback whales hunt by blowing rings of bubbles, which can be difficult to view from land or boat. A drone’s camera can pick up details like the size and frequency of the bubbles and how many whales are involved, allowing scientists to observe the behavior of whales intimately through cameras from above without disturbing their natural habitats. This respects the animals and protects scientists from unexpected attacks when they step foot into the animals’ personal space.

Drones offer a safe alternative to manned aircraft for collecting data on wildlife conservation. Equipped with cameras and sensors capable of taking high-definition photos and thermal imaging, drones can affordably access areas not easily reached by land. In the past, biologists like Johnston had to fly in small planes or helicopters to get satellite pictures of wild animals. These methods are expensive and potentially dangerous. With drones, scientists can stay safe on land or a boat and fly the machinery across dangerous terrain to reach animals.

Drones are modernizing wildlife conservation by providing an eye in the sky to change the way society currently addresses poaching and research. Conservation groups can use drones as powerful tools to protect endangered species from illegal poachers with thermal and night-vision sensors. Drones also allow scientists to collect data on these animals and observe their behavior to recognize hunting patterns or malnutrition. Drones bridge the gap between technology and nature and shed light on how technology can be an advantageous tool to protect the world’s most valuable and unique species.