Kenya Is Deploying Drones Nationwide to Drive Out Ivory Poachers

In an unprecedented move, Kenya will spin up small-fry spy drones in all 52 of its national parks and reserves to sniff out poachers.

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Apr 25 2014, 5:15pm
Photo: Shutterstock

Kenya will deploy small-fry spy drones in all 52 of its national parks and reserves to sniff out ivory poachers. The $103 million initiative will roll out through the end of 2014, as the Guardian reports, and comes on the heels of a pilot program that for all intents and purposes proved wildly successful: The trial, which used surveillance drones to proactively monitor the movements of both roving poacher gangs and elephant and rhino herds in a large (unnamed) wildlife sanctuary, slashed illegal ivory poaching by 96 percent, the Kenyan government told the Guardian.  

Kenya has long battled against ivory poaching, but in recent years the crisis has intensified to the point that the East African nation is facing its gravest poaching threat in a quarter century, with elephants being cut down by the hundreds to feed the beast that is the global ivory black market. Not surprisingly, the country has been one of the first to actively field test anti-poaching drone technology, and now it's poised to scale up its eyes in the sky. 

It still might be too early to tell to what extent, exactly, drones can help stamp out ivory poaching writ large throughout Africa and beyond. But if Kenya's trial is any indicator, the small remote-controlled planes are certainly an asset.

Of course, It's all come at great losses to animal populations struggling to hang on in the face of senseless butchery. Since 2012, over 435 of Kenya's elephants and about 400 of its rhinos have been cut down by poachers, who go on to sell the ivory as snake oil in sketchy Asian markets or on the dark web. This year alone, ivory poachers in Kenya have killed 18 rhinos and over 50 elephants.

VICE on HBO correspondent Vikram Gandhi talks about ivory poaching in Africa.

With support from governments in Canada, France, Netherlands, and the US, Kenya's drone plan would effectively end the illegal practice of ivory poaching in the country of 44 million. At least that's the idea.

"Poaching is a menace and we have realised something had to be done. That is why we decided to come up with the idea to use drones," William Kiprono, director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, told the Guardian. But it won't be a magic wand, at least not right away: "This is a project that may even last a lifetime as long as poaching remains a problem and the global demand for wildlife products continues to increase," Kiprono added.

Then again, it'll fit right into a suite of anti-poaching tech, including DNA mapping, heat-sensing planes, and hidden remote sensors, that are changing the way we poach poachers, so to speak. And let's not forget those chili pepper-armed drones that literally scare animals to safety.

Notably, the initiative comes with a decidedly human edge. The KWS will staff up considerably, from 975 to 1,600 rangers, over the next few months, and will be be flushed with new guns, bulletproof vests, and night-vision tech. Sometimes, the best way to use remotely-controlled robots to protect endangered species is to give their operators a helping hand.