The fight on the ground to save elephants and rhinos from extinction is getting high-tech air support, including drones, radar and a global crowd-monitoring initiative. With all these resources being marshaled for the cause, the momentum, so far, is on the side of conservationists.
Poaching is a big business. The illegal killing and transporting of flora and fauna is estimated to be at least a $5 billion business that spans the globe and, like any other business, is only sustained when there is a reasonable supply that is provided to a demanding market. Of course, if the demand is high (along with prices), then the value of the targeted supply skyrockets.
That is the case with elephant tusks and rhino horns. A huge demand for ivory (mostly for carving figurines), and grated horn (ingested in the belief of warding off cancer and hangovers), has produced poaching pressure that has put African elephants and rhinos on the path to extinction. The last two years has seen an estimated 80,000 elephants killed by poachers – a trend that would make them essentially extinct within a decade. The same relative future is looming for both white and black rhinos.
With rhino horns bringing a street value of upward of $500,000 in Vietnam and a pair of tusks generating $150,000 in China, the mix is increasingly complicated by the involvement of poaching teams funded by organized crime and terrorist groups – all chasing the big bucks.
That’s where things get particularly interesting.
In addition to all of the money involved, the socio-economic system that supports poaching is a complicated mix. Across sub-Saharan Africa, acute poverty, lack of knowledge and information, a paucity of offsetting incentives, broad-based corruption, inefficiency, and every day conflicts between humans and animals (especially with elephants, when they destroy crops and kill and maim villagers), all make for a very dynamic situation with many moving parts.
But the nightly conflict on the ground between anti-poaching forces and the animal hunters has spawned an explosion in tools and techniques aimed at keeping the animals alive – as well as the tourist economies that support many countries and millions of workers.
Since most of the poaching happens near dusk, in the end, the objective is to know where the animals are and where the poachers might be on any given night. It can almost be distilled down to anticipating the location of just the target animals – for the poachers will always be near where the animals are.
All of this is hindered by the fact that a great deal of the action takes place in the dark, an environment in which the poachers have an upper hand. Organizations such as Kenya Wildlife Service, for example, have for many years flown small manned aircraft in addition to ranger patrols on the ground as part of their anti-poaching efforts, but those efforts essentially stop when the sun sets.
So, how do you find out where the high-value animals will be the night after next? That’s where increasingly sophisticated technology is being brought to the fight.
On one hand, you can track the animals, and thereby know where they are ranging. But that’s not particularly easy, so often the objective is to predict where they might be. Tracking usually involves affixing some sort of radio transponder to the animal and then monitoring locations with satellites, aircraft, drones or even Wi-Fi networks.
But, in time, the animals often disable the collars and other devices that are used to monitor their movement. New efforts by groups such as World Wildlife Fund are underway to develop small, unobtrusive, long lasting devices that can be attached to the upper part of the tails of the big animals and can potentially be placed there with drones – thus eliminating the necessity of tranquilizing the animal in order to attach the tracking system.
If an area can be blanketed with Wi-Fi, then anything with a “radio” or transponder can be monitored in real time. Near Kruger Park in South Africa, a large, sophisticated wireless system has been put in place by Dimension Data covering a complete animal reserve and providing vehicle, animal and even human tracking by way of a combination of transponders, cameras and other sensor systems.
Effective animal tracking can be done with overhead systems, although real-time information is generally cost prohibitive. High-resolution satellite imagery has been analyzed with crowd sourcing techniques, effectively marshaling many thousands of interested individuals across the planet to scour online photos, looking for live animals as well as carcasses. If the turnaround is quick enough, that information can be fed into databases that can give a reasonable picture about where the animals are roaming – and where the past killing has taken place.
Some organizations are proposing (and testing) technologies such as radar to monitor movement across broad areas from a location of high elevation, thereby being able to alert rangers to check out suspicious activity tens of miles away. Others are proposing launching aerostats – big helium-filled, tethered balloons – that would carry radar or thermal imaging sensors to significant altitudes extending the range of the surveillance. Large systems like that, which are powered from the ground, can support a variety of sensors in addition to cameras.
But aerostats and radar are pricey, so perhaps the biggest area of opportunity may be drones. A million small drones were sold in the U.S. commercial market alone last year and estimates are for two million or more to be sold there in 2016. This explosion is producing exponential advances in both airframes and control systems as well as in sensor systems that can be hung on the little aircraft.
In order to be stealthy and invisible to the poachers, drones must be electric and powered by batteries. However, the power drain of helicopter-type airframes usually ends up with endurances of only fractions of an hour, which is why fixed-wing drones are the choice of companies such as UAV & Drone Solutions. UDS, the operating partner of the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd anti-poaching program in southern Africa, has used creative engineering and aircraft design to squeeze almost five hours out of a single charge, allowing their drones to wander as far as 50 kilometres from their command and control vehicles.
Air Shepherd teams are trying hard to stay far ahead of the poachers in technology development. Miniature LIDAR (laser radar), solid-state radar units and rifle shot direction capabilities are being evaluated, as are advanced batteries that have the potential of significantly increasing endurance, and therefore options. They are also embracing artificial intelligence-based pattern recognition technology to help to automatically identify animals, vehicles and humans from altitude.
Some game reserves are the size of small U.S. states, so having an idea about where the action is likely to be – rather than making uninformed guesses – can dramatically raise the odds of both finding and deterring poachers. That’s why some “big data” initiatives are underway – at two major universities, at least, to aggregate as much current and historical information possible to hone in on the patterns that point to those places and times where future poaching is most likely. Here, with these predictive analytics programs, much like with augmented reality, layers of data are superimposed on top of a map of the area, each layer adding another variable. Weather, time of day, lunar cycles, topography, infrastructure, known watering sites, past poaching events, etc., all add to the picture and highlight defined areas of significant threat.
The great amount of money associated with poaching coupled with the rapid proliferation of technology guarantees that both poachers and animal defenders will be fielding the best tech they can put their hands on in order to pursue their ends. So far, in terms of technology at least, it appears that the momentum is on the side of the conservationists.