South Africa is turning to drone technology to protect endangered species, among which is the targeted rhinoceros from the reaches of poachers.
By Ashvin Ramasamy

Drones to surveil animal populations?

New information on species populations points to an ongoing mass extinction of the Earth’s species. This is the resulting conclusion found in a large-scale study of half of the total vertebrate population. Alarmingly, over 30% of the 27,600 vertebrates studied has experienced biodiversity loss, with notable contraction in geographical range and declining population sizes. The cause? By and large, the sheer size of human overpopulation has outcompeted the species and our insatiable appetite for natural resources have brought about a crisis that poses serious threats to our own survival. The imperiled species form a vital part in the overall ecosystem health. While humans are considered part of the macro ecology, our activities determine the survival of species with which we share the planet. We cannot turn back the clock to save the billions of populations of terrestrial and aquatic animals but we can look to innovative technologies to curb ongoing losses.

Technological development in the sophisticated realm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has shown significant potential for environmental research and conservation ecology goals. A common thread in the global epidemic decline of species is the illegal trade of animals, namely in South Africa. Poaching is now being fought with drones. Different technologies are being applied for varying purposes, with some utilizing galaxy-finding systems with thermal cameras to detect creatures in the night. Poachers constantly target endangered species for their prized parts, such as the horns of White Rhino and Black Rhino in South Africa. The figures tell a worrisome tale: in 2014, 1215 rhinos were killed, and in 2016 that number dropped to 1054. However, the appetite for rhino parts and other endangered species continues to grow in many parts of the world.

An Effective Conservation & Anti-Poaching Tool

There are precedents of aerial surveillance — namely helicopter-based surveys — for the benefit of nature conservation in keeping regular inventories of animals in surveyed areas. Helicopter flights help wildlife management tremendously by capturing aerial footage in efficient and timely ways, and biologists do not face the constraint of unavailable roads and path to study areas. However, some drawbacks in the accuracy of counting, the camouflage effects of vegetation and difficulty of locating individual species open the door for drone surveillance. Where helicopter survey is expensive and risky when flying at low altitudes, drones present a more interesting alternative. Research shows that traditional aerial means of surveillance drives up cost up to $50k/week whereas a drone will require $3k/week. Drones are also capable of photographing animal subjects at altitude ranging from 500 feet to 1000 feet. With growing demand for the tool, cost for the technology is expected to go down.

Drones have also been studied for their potential usefulness in maintaining count of bird species and possibly following them on their migratory routes. Debate on the interference of UAVs on bird population was put to rest when French scientists investigated the risk of disturbance of drones on different species of birds. In 80% of the flights, the drone came as close as 15 feet of the subject without perception of harm. Drones can potentially replace to the sometimes disruptive practice of human observation in ornithological study needs.

Seabird bird surveys also stand to benefit from drones. Dyer Island spans nearly 16 hectares but has the ever prominent Important Bird Area status in South Africa. Being home to 15 species of seabird, conservation efforts are widespread. Manual counting of seabirds being tedious is standard practice nonetheless, especially for understanding population growth during breeding season. Compared to human count, the drone project has been reported to complete the same task faster and with greater stealthiness. Recording the birds with aerial imagery makes counting on photos more practical. In addition, the drone recorded areas prohibitive by foot or would have otherwise caused significant disturbance if accessed by humans.

Elsewhere, drones are being piloted in end-to-end information technology solutions on site. Big name technology-provider Cisco developed the infrastructure to collect, store and monitor data in an undisclosed South African game reserve where rhinos roam. The intelligent network, relies on drones fitted with thermal cameras and a slew of interconnected devices hooked up to the cloud as well as via Wi-Fi networks. The integrated security defense system, project leaders maintain, is a preventative measure capable of stopping unauthorized individuals regardless of mode of entry (cutting fence, helicopter drop-off or or through gates).

Some drone developers, like The Air Shepherd Initiative applies a military-style computer analytics approach to identify poaching hot spots. The intelligence gathering enables dispatching of silent drones, fitted with night vision to search for poachers in the dark. Using a sophisticated computer algorithm, the engineers can predict with confidence the time and location poaching will take place. With the coordinated deployment of park rangers ahead of time, death of rhinos can be prevented. In addition, the thermal cameras and sensors enable conservationists to track and monitor hidden or nocturnal animals with greater ease.

Current Challenges With Drones

Like with any nascent strategy, pros and cons stack up side by side. As explained, the opportunities for drone technology in conservation and prevention of illegal poaching show promise as global demand for anti-poaching measures grows. Still some aspects of conservation needs face technical challenges with the use of drones.

● Drones with energy tanks big enough to monitor large swaths of land, such as national parks and game reserves housing endangered species, are very expensive — upwards $250,000 US.
● Existing drones can operate between 30 to 90 minutes, and drone operators must have a line of sight otherwise remote connection is lost.
● Future development indicate that longer range can be achieved — more than 50 km or but cost is a concern, and can future drones achieve six to eight hours of daily flight time to assure heightened surveillance?
● Waterbird surveys of 6000 tern nests revealed that despite positive overall results, comparing ground survey with UAV surveys pointed to lower visibility of nests due to ground cover, weather conditions, image quality as well as changing nest attendance rates during the incubation phase.
● Skepticism from conservation leaders to use UAVs is partly slowing down implementation but academic institutions support of the technology will help shift schools of thought.
● Aerial drone surveillance is only as good as the ground monitoring system operating hand in hand; not all small parks and reserves have the financial freedom to acquire and manage expensive anti-poaching monitoring units.
● In areas where species intermingle, software to differentiate species at night is needed. At this time, autopilot systems are being developed to include such feature. Cost remains a potential concern.