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Can Drones Save Elephants?

October 10, 2013

I’ve been interested in that question, along with other creative and technical solutions to rhino and elephant poaching. And Chris Spillane has a nice piece at Bloomberg that investigates:

“It’s pretty grim,” Goss, a 28-year-old Kenyan who manages the Mara Elephant Project, said as he stood 50 meters (55 yards) from the carcass. “It’s an elephant without a face. It’ll be eaten by Hyenas now.”

Poachers had speared the pachyderm in her back. Its ivory would be worth more than $8,000 inAsia. The carcass was the third found in four days, an unusually high number, Goss said. One was shot with an automatic rifle and the other animal was also pierced.

When he started using the drones, Goss thought they would help mainly with providing aerial footage of the landscape and tracking poachers armed with rifles and the Maasai who sometimes killed the animals when they interfere with the grazing of their cows. He soon discovered they could help by frightening the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way.

“We realized very quickly that the elephants hated the sound of them,” said Goss, whose week-old beard goes white near his temples. “I’m assuming that they think it’s a swarm of bees.”

Goss and his team have put collars with global positioning system devices on 15 elephants so they can be tracked on a computer overlaying their paths on Google Earth. That way the animals, who have names such as Madde, after Goss’s wife, Fred, Hugo and Polaris, can be followed to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict.

Goss hopes to buy 10 more drones and to modify them by adding a mechanism that releases capsaicin, the active component in chili pepper, when elephants stray near dangerous areas.Paint balls loaded with chili pepper are being used in Zambia’s lower Zambezi region to deter elephants from high-risk zones.

“Drones are basically the future of conservation; a drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” said James Hardy, a fourth-generation Kenyan and manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At night time we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”

It’s always interesting to see the different and surprising ways in which technical solutions will take you. And as depressing as it is that saving an elephant from poachers means harassing it with a drone and chili pepper, I guess an annoyed or uncomfortable elephant is better than a dead elephant. You do what you gotta do in this fight.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 11, 2013 4:43 am

    Anything that helps. Especially when it can make the conservation dollar go further and help more.

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