Thursday, August 1, 2013

World Wildlife Federation Uses Drones to Protect Animals from Poachers

Confiscated rhino horns. Image Source: One More Generation.

The rising new middle classes in Asia are pumping up the demand for ivory and other endangered species' animal parts, which are used in medicines, charms and food. Slate interviewed a World Wildlife Federation spokesperson about how the WWF is using drones to safeguard animals in an increasingly high tech battle with poachers; the money for the drones came from search engine giant Google in 2012:
Ariel Bogle: In recent months, the WWF began trials of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) where wildlife poaching is occurring. How did this come about?

Carter Roberts: In the early 2000s, we thought we had generally solved the wildlife trade. There were only 20 or so rhinos poached a year in South Africa. Then about five years ago, rhino poaching in that country jumped from 20 to 150 animals, to 350, to 450. This year, it’s expected to surpass 650, and last year we estimate that we lost 30,000 elephants.

Increasingly, we’re learning that this is not your father’s wildlife trade. It used to be for traditional uses, but now it’s the demands of a growing middle class in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and even here in the United States. Very sophisticated crime syndicates are involved, and there’s evidence that these groups are using the proceeds to finance their other activities. They have night-vision goggles, helicopters, and advanced weaponry.

We need to acquire better, real-time information. That’s what led us to experiment with using UAVS to track poachers. Poachers often operate at night, and UAVs do a great job at tracking because of their infrared capabilities. A guy in the middle of a big park stands out like a sore thumb when you’re using infrared imagery. The ability to get that information and connect it to people on the ground means you can begin to track the poachers.

Bogle: Where have you tested UAVS?

Carter: We’ve undertaken trials in Namibia and Nepal. We’re trying to find the sweet spot. UAVs are not going to work in the field if you require a Ph.D. and a military background to operate them. You need simple technology that can be repeated and repaired by people on the ground.

We wanted to experiment in places where we controlled more of the variables and then begin trials in areas where the conflict is hotter, where we’re losing the most animals. But we need to make sure we have the infrastructure ready.

Bogle: Is there concern about using this technology where the political situation may not be stable? Is there sufficient oversight?

Carter: We’re working on safeguards and filters to make sure that all the information we’re gathering on animals doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and become a guide for poachers. But you can’t use this technology without grounding it in the customs and the laws of the local country. It’s too sensitive. ...

Bogle: What other technologies are the WWF considering?
Carter: As part of our partnership with Google [the WWF is a recipient of its Global Impact Awards], we want look into how to use tagging and cellphone technology to track animals, employ UAVs to track poachers, and also find software that can put the data together in real time. A “brain” that would allow us to collate information on animals and poachers, so that we can deploy people quickly in the field.
The collar we currently put on a rhino costs about $10,000. Imagine being able to use animal tracking chips and UAVs to download that information regularly, and cheaply, without satellites. Being able to gather this information systematically and on a local basis is just common sense.
"A few endangered species owe Google a thank you note. The search engine just gave $5 million (UK£3.1 million, AUD$4.77 million) to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for unmanned aircraft and other tech to help protect tigers, elephants and rhinos from poachers." The money will go toward high tech and drones like the one above, so that the WWF can locate animals before they are killed and protect them from poachers in Asia and Africa. Image Source: Tech Radar.

Image Source: The Epoch Times.

Elephant poaching. Image Source: Karl Ammann via the Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington.

"The carcass of Khadija, a mature female elephant killed by poachers near Kenya's Samburu National Reserve." Image Source: Save the Elephants via National Geographic.