A herd of elephants, as seen from a UAV. Image: PLOS One
Drones are supposed to help us save the rhinos and the elephants—something they're not going to be able to if they're banned.
When people point out the beneficial uses of drones, one of the first things they list is their potential as an anti-poaching tool. Using drones to save endangered animals is about as uncontroversial as you can get—especially because, in the remote savannah, there aren't as many privacy issues from flying cameras.
But that's apparently not enough for several countries: Kenya's government just banned the private use of drones, a move that will immediately ground an anti-poaching pilot program that was set to begin in one of the world's most important wildlife sanctuaries. South Africa also just banned the private use of drones as well.
Citing "security concerns," local media reported that the Kenyan government specifically grounded a drone that was set to monitor the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which contains one of the world's largest populations of black rhinos, as well as some of the last remaining northern white rhinos in the world.
“One of the things that has now arisen is that the Kenya Government have put a ban in place on private sector drones for the time being," the park said in a statement. "We will be working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to identify the way forward for our conservation drone."
Tom Snitch, a University of Maryland researcher who has run a successful anti-poaching drone project in South Africa Image: Tom Snitch
For all the hype anti-poaching drones have gotten, they still haven't been implemented in any truly meaningful way. The Ol Pejeta project was set to be one of the first serious attempts at using drones to track poachers. Last year, at least 50 rhinos were poached in the country.
So far, the World Wildlife Fund and Google have both helped fund wildlife drone projects, but critics say that they've dragged their feet when it comes to actually setting them loose in the wild.
The WWF, for instance, is focusing on flying drones in areas where very few animals are actually killed. Tom Snitch, a University of Maryland drone researcher who I spoke to for a story several months ago, tells me that his plan is to focus on areas such as South Africa's Kruger National Park, where hundreds of animals are killed every year.
"You lose five [rhinos] a year in Namibia [where the WWF is flying]. You lose two a day in Kruger," Snitch told me. "From a PR point of view, if you cut poaching by 40 percent in Kruger, you still have hundreds being killed. People like raising funds, and it's easier to raise funds if you can say you've reduced poachings to zero in a year."
For the record, Snitch's program is one of the few that has both been implemented and had success: During an 11-day test last year, while Snitch's drone was aloft, no rhinos were killed in Kruger. On the year, 606 rhinos were killed by poachers in the park.
Snitch tells me that the ban threatens the future of all of his projects.
"We were ready to head to Borana in Kenya on July 20 with 4 UAVs. We spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing for this trip and I am very aggravated," he told me. "So far, we have not had problems in South Africa but that doesn't mean things won't change tomorrow."
The WWF contends that there's little point to flying drones if there aren't rangers on the ground to intercept poachers—otherwise, you're just taking pretty pictures of animals dying.
"Over and over we've seen that more ranger booths on the ground is the most important deterrent to poaching," Eric Dinerstein, vice president of the WWF's conservation science program, told me. "You can have UAVs flying, video cameras going, but if you don't have anyone on the ground to intercept the poachers, it won't matter."
Kruger National Park is the size of Israel, and it's understaffed with rangers. Drones can fly around, find the animals, and give rangers an idea of the areas they should be patrolling. Drones can fly more cheaply and more often than light aircraft, which are also used for wildlife monitoring. Kenya's Daily Nation reports that flying a light aircraft in Ol Pejeta costs $220 an hour. Drones are also safer.
The bottom line is, drones won't be the cure-all to stop poaching. But they can be an incredibly important tool—if governments actually let them be.