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article imageNight-flying drones combat Africa's poaching problem

By Megan Hamilton     Mar 12, 2016 in Environment
Wildlife conservationists fighting poaching in Africa are being assisted from on high — by unmanned aerial drones that expose poachers. The drones are also helping to stabilize the tourism industry, which has been severely impacted by wildlife deaths.
Operating mostly at night and ever elusive, poachers can be nearly impossible to find, but Air Shepherd drones, sponsored by the Lindbergh Foundation, have fortunately changed that, Discovery News reports.
Stealing silently and invisibly across African skies, the drones track the movements of wildlife and poachers, relaying information to enforcement teams on the ground. The teams are able to apprehend poachers before any animals are killed.
Elephant and rhino poaching is devastating in Africa, spurred by corrupt governments and terrorist groups who reap huge profits from this cruel and illegal business. As the populations of these magnificent creatures decline, tourism suffers, harming local economies. Poaching has produced a vicious circle of instability in several regions.
And the statistics are shocking. In Africa, poaching is a $5 billion per year business. One rhino horn sells for up to $500,000 in Vietnam.
Reports say that more 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010 and the end of 2012, The Journal Star reports. There are fears that all of the elephants in Africa may vanish within 10 years if poaching continues.
Rhinos are not faring any better. More than 1,000 rhinos were killed in 2013 in South Africa alone. Poachers arm themselves with high-powered rifles, and use infrared tracking devices and sophisticated computer technology to find and slaughter wildlife, and the animals have little chance against this.
The human cost of this tragedy is severe as well. Hundreds of rangers have been killed by poachers, and estimates say that more than 13 million Africans depend directly on wildlife for their livelihood, Discovery News reports.
Fortunately, the drones are helping to turn this around. The Air Shepherd drone teams go through months-long training and are sent to the areas where illegal poaching occurs. Flying silently at night and using intelligence from a variety of sources, infrared-capable drones cover areas where poachers operate, The Journal Star reports.
Once the poachers are found, rangers are sent out to capture them. And the drones also protect rangers who are at risk from poachers and wild animals when they are patrolling at night.
The impact has been positive. When the drones are flying, poaching stops. However, more drone teams are needed if Africa's wide-spread poaching problem is to be addressed properly, the foundation notes.
Discovery News reports that the program is being used in areas of Kruger Park and KwaZulu Natal, in South Africa. Air Shepherd is working with officials in six other African countries who asked for help to fight poaching.
How the drones work
A drone's course is plotted by a Maryland-based computer that relies on rhino-tracking data compiled over a period of two years, The Dodo reports. This information is updated weekly, and it can predict where the rhinos will gather on a given evening, usually with more than 90 percent accuracy. The information is then emailed halfway around the world. Then it's downloaded and transferred to drone using a USB stick.
Now the rangers have a chance to interrupt the poachers and save wildlife. To do that, you don't have to find the poachers, said Thomas Snitch, Ph.D., a University of Maryland professor who formed an initiative with the Lindbergh Foundation and local universities to create Air Shepherd (the university ended its relationship with Air Shepherd more than a year ago). Instead, all you have to do is look for the animals most likely to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Poachers are lazy, Snitch said during a recent lecture, The Dodo reports. They usually stick close to roads and rivers for easy access before and after a kill.
Another benefit in using these drones is that they're inexpensive and easy to repair. Their wings are made of foam and if one breaks, a replacement wing is put in place.
These drones are a bit of good news for endangered species and those of us who love them.
More about Wildlife, unmanned aerial drones, Drones, tourism industry, air shepherd
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