Towards zero poaching: WWF TCO trains Drones Handlers to Help in Protection of Tanzania’s Game Reserves
Selous Game Reserve vegetation cover is over 60% making it difficult to detect poachers and any illegal activities. A new tool for image analysis has also been developed to zero down to detailed actions in the images. The drone mosaics, for instance, “shows an illegal gold mining in a game reserve and a set of canoes inside a protected area you actually see people” according to Allan Carlson from WWF-Sweden. In addition, the drone mosaics, if enhanced, using image segmentation can remotely help to identify poachers modus operandi like footprints, bicycle, motorcycles tracks, camps, snares, pit traps, trees fresh cuts, among others.
For the last five years, Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCOs World Heritage Site has lost over 60% of its elephant population while the rhino population remains unknown. The largest conservation area in Africa measuring 50,000 km2 is famous for having the only remnant of the black rhino population of sub species Diceros bicornis minor in Eastern Africa. In 1981 it harboured one of the largest elephant and black rhino populations on the African continent numbering 90,000 elephant and 3,000 black rhino, respectively. As per 2014, only less than 15,000 elephants and 27 rhinos remained. This and the proposed industrial development, mining and oil and gas exploration within the ecosystem puts Selous on a danger list and risks being removed from.
“The range of the drones’ capability is well suited to the undulating terrains of the game reserves. Fitted with cameras with infrared/thermo sensors that easily detect humans on the ground, it is now possible to see remotely what is happening in areas we have not been able to patrol and bring to an end poaching and other illegal activities” according to Selous Game Reserve Likuyu sector Manager. The drones are able to cover huge areas, which promises an effective fight against poaching that has eluded game rangers resulting in killing of elephants and rhinos in the vast game reserve. Evidence-based patrols using drones will significantly cut down the cost of patrols and poachers aware of being monitored remotely will keep off from the reserves. The same technology should be used in community Wildlife Management Areas, critical elephant dispersal areas, which are adjacent to the game reserves.
WWF TCO is working with WWF-UK and WWF Sweden to develop a robust national rhino program. However, the vastness and inaccessibility of the Selous Game Reserve pauses a challenge for the best protection of wildlife living within it. With about 700 rangers in the Selous, the 75 km2 area coverage per ranger is triple the international standards for effective patrols but could be sufficient with the use of drones. “By using these drones, Tanzania is going a step forward in fighting poaching and to realize WWF Zero poaching strategy” Dr Amani Ngusaru, WWF TCO Country Director pointed out. The introduction of the drones is in line with the now preferred intelligence-based anti-poaching efforts rather than depending only on ground deployment of rangers and heavy equipment.