Nairobi, Kenya – The discovery was gruesome. A family of 12 dead elephants rotting in the midday heat of south-eastern Kenya, their faces hacked apart by poachers as they removed the animals’ ivory tusks.
The massacre this month in Tsavo East National Park highlighted a surge in poaching in Africa that has pushed conservationists to embrace new technologies in an effort to save threatened elephants and rhinos.
Now, rangers plan to deploy remotely controlled drone aircrafts above three African parks this year.
Elsewhere, elephant collars fitted with iPhone-style technology are being developed to alert wardens when animals are hunted.
“Many nearby conservancies have lost animals. We recently took in a rhino calf which had been shot, but sadly did not survive,” said Rob Breare, from central Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
“It’s a pretty desperate situation right now, and anything that halts this poaching scourge is a necessity,” he noted.
Ol Pejeta employs 160 armed guards across 90,000 acres (360 km2) to protect its prized assets: four of the world’s last remaining seven northern white rhinos. In March, it plans to test-fly a $75,000 drone to place eyes in the sky.
Launched either by hand or catapult, the aircraft can cover 10,000 acres on each flight, relaying a live-stream camera feed to rangers on the ground. Thermal imaging means it can also patrol by night.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also plans to deploy drones above two African and two Asian reserves, while tagging and monitoring animals in a $5m scheme that is being funded by Google, the environmental group’s anti-trafficking expert Crawford Allan said.
“This isn’t just about using aerial surveillance systems. This is about understanding where the animals are on the ground, using low-cost technology to electronically tag animals,” he said. “It’s a new approach that could change the game and really deter poaching.”
WWF describes a soaring trade in ivory and rhino horn to provide trinkets, aphrodisiacs and medicine to the burgeoning nouveau riche of China and other parts of Asia.
“Agitated animals act differently, allowing the collar to send out an alert and our team can get there before the elephant is killed. “
– Frank Pope
Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Kenya lost 360 elephants last year in a “global surge in poaching, fuelled by high demand for ivory in Asian countries”. Ivory costs $1,000 per pound in the Far East, while rhino horn fetches up to $30,000 per pound.
After two decades of conservation gains and growing elephant and rhino numbers, much of Africa is witnessing a return to the bad old days and record highs of poaching. Wardens fear the thick-skinned beasts could be wiped out altogether.
The Kenya-based group, Save the Elephants, uses hi-tech collars fitted around animals’ necks, which emit mobile phone and satellite signals, allowing rangers to monitor scores of animals via Google Earth, spokesman Frank Pope told Al Jazeera.
When an elephant ceases moving, the collar sends out an alert signal and rangers rush to investigate the scene.
“We find either that the elephant has been injured or, more often, sadly, it’s been killed,” Pope noted.
Tracking the killers after a carcass discovery can be effective. This month, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers in Isiolo County, in central Kenya, hunted down a poaching gang and killed two poachers in the ensuing shoot-out.
Engineers are currently upgrading the collars so they can raise the alarm even before an elephant has been gunned down, said Pope, effectively turning the heavyweight herbivores “into their own threat-detectors”.
Using accelerometer technology found in iPhones, which gauge movement and gravitational pull, improved collars will also track an elephant’s movement patterns and breathing, thus indicating if the animal is distressed.
“In the bush, elephants detect poachers before the poachers detect elephants. They have exquisitely good senses of hearing and smell,” Pope said. “Agitated animals act differently, allowing the collar to send out an alert and our team can get there before the elephant is killed.”
While tracking gadgets are widely welcomed by conservationists, the value of “eco-drones” remains hotly debated and has been dismissed as a gimmick, the brainchild of marketing executives in aerospace firms more usually associated with creating weapons of war.
“We need them to understand they are being conned by snake-oil salesmen. Often sick people who cannot afford to waste their money on fakes.“
– Crawan Allan. analyst
Unlike the high-altitude killers deployed above Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, conservation drones look more like model aircraft and have a smaller field of vision. Poachers already bury animal carcasses to avoid detection by ranger aeroplanes.
“We need to see results before we allocate resources,” said KWS spokesman Paul Mbugua. “We need to know whether poachers are capable of bringing drones down, just like they can bring down other aircraft.”
Ian Saunders, the former military co-founder of the Tsavo Trust, described a battle against Mafia-like gangs toting Kalashnikovs and rifle-fired grenades, comparable to “low-level counter-insurgency” operations.
“UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] have a role to play, but they are no silver bullet,” he said. “Deterring poachers involves well-trained and well-equipped people on the ground. It’s not about Special Forces and drones; it’s about doing the basics well.”
Ecologists now warn that many of Africa’s “rebel militias” have joined the poaching spree for quick cash, with analysts pointing the finger at Somalia’s hard-line al-Shabaab fighters and the quasi-religious Lord’s Resistance Army of central Africa.
“As much as blood diamonds were fuelling conflict in Africa, we are now seeing blood ivory fuelling conflict and instability on the continent,” said Pope, from Save the Elephants.
While conservationists disagree on the merits of eco-drones, there is consensus on the need to quash the demand for tusks and horns in Asia, as well as running intelligence-led anti-poaching efforts in sub-Saharan savannah.
An International Fund for Animal Welfare study revealed that 70 percent of Chinese consumers were not aware that elephants were killed for ivory, often believing that it compares to losing a tooth. Rhino horn is mistakenly believed to cure cancer and boost sexual potency.
“We need them to understand they are being conned by snake-oil salesmen. Often sick people who cannot afford to waste their money on fakes,” said Allan from WWF.
“With time, people will come to understand that it isn’t morally acceptable to wipe out a species at the whim of wealthy people.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl