Eyes in the sky on the lookout for poachers



Posted on 19 February 2013  | 
Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) radio tracking on Indian elephant, Chitwan National Park, Nepal
Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) radio tracking on Indian elephant, Chitwan National Park, Nepal
© Michel Gunther / WWF-CanonEnlarge
By Dr A. Christy Williams
WWF Asian Rhino and Elephant Programme Leader

One of the places I spend a lot of my time is Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. Chitwan is special because it is home not only to the Asian elephants and greater one-horned rhinos that I work with, but also tigers and many other animals. I am really proud of the fact that Nepal lost no rhinos to poaching in 2011 despite a sharp rise in killings elsewhere.

Last March, however, Chitwan was struck by rhino poachers. Three of the ranger posts heard the gunshots, but it took them four hours to find the carcass in the park’s heavy brush. By that time two of the poachers had slipped over the Indian border with the horn. We were too late to catch them.

It was then that we first considered using conservation drones. If we had technology to see from the air we could have launched when the shots were fired and would have been able to find the crime scene within maybe 15 minutes. We also could have dispatched sniffer dogs to chase down the perpetrators.

I soon discovered that we weren’t the only ones thinking about how drone technology could help rangers stop poachers. When I started researching I came across this huge open-source community of drone builders exchanging information on a site founded by former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson called DIYdrones.com. Dedicated enthusiasts from all over the world are programming new ideas every day.

I got in touch with some builders from conservationdrones.org to start discussing possibilities that were within our limited budget. I learned that we could do much of what the sophisticated drones do, albeit on a smaller scale, for a modest investment. In Nepal the army is in charge of protecting the national parks, so the government was comfortable giving all the proper clearances because an official security agency would operate the drones.

In Nepal we have very good intelligence networks and all the known poachers are already behind bars. But where there is opportunity criminals will exploit any weaknesses, so we have to be smarter.

Over the past few months we’ve been testing the drones and training the park’s security personnel on how to use them. We are stressing with them that drones are only one tool and must be backed up by the boots on the ground. Anything the drones see we have to respond to.

We’d also like to put up towers with long distance security cameras so computers can alert us when someone illegally enters the park. There is a deterrent factor to drones and camera towers. The bad guys considering coming in to poach would see them and maybe think again about committing a crime. With this technology we are warning criminals that we will find you.

We hope that Chitwan is just the beginning. WWF has started working with technology giant Google to roll out these types of aerial surveillance systems in other important places to help rangers.

In the past, when rangers went out on a foot patrol they could only see a tiny part of their protected area. What happened beyond that largely remained unknown. With conservation drones not only can rangers see better, but they can better protect against the threats facing the animals and habitats they are guarding.
Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) radio tracking on Indian elephant, Chitwan National Park, Nepal
Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) radio tracking on Indian elephant, Chitwan National Park, Nepal
© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon Enlarge
The Conservation Drone is two meters wide and is equipped with cameras and GPS
© WWF Nepal Enlarge
WWF Nepal staff understanding the technicalities of the drone.
© WWF Nepal Enlarge

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