High-flying Surveillance Drones Protect Wildlife from Poachers

Conservation drone model 2.0. Photo: Lian Pin Koh / CC BY 2.0

Conservationists working to protect endangered species may soon have a new weapon in their arsenal—one borrowed from the military. Scientists working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have created conservation drones—unmanned aerial vehicles that can monitor remote areas for poaching and other illegal activities.

On June 12 two drones were tested in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, home to the endangered Bengal tiger and Indian rhinoceros. Attending the event were representatives from the Nepalese government, army, National Parks department, and WWF Nepal.

The drones are equipped with GPS and a camera, allowing them to collect photographs and videos that can help conservationists keep an eye on wildlife in remote locations. Only six and a half feet wide, the drones are powered by rechargeable batteries and fly a pre-programmed route.

Aerial photograph of an elephant taken by a conservation drone. Photo: Lian Pin Koh / CC BY 2.0

The drones were designed by Serge Wich, a biologist at the University of Zurich, and Lian Pin Koh, an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Wich and Koh have already used drones to survey for orangutans in Indonesia and chimpanzees in Tanzania. In addition to species-specific searches, they’re also useful for general habitat monitoring or forest assessment.

Although many endangered animals like rhinos and tigers are protected in national parks, borders do little to dissuade determined poachers, who often kill the animals within park boundaries. In 2000 there were an estimated 544 rhinos in Chitwan National Park, but by 2008 poaching had lowered that number to an estimated 408 rhinos.

Drones will add an extra level of protection. "We hope these drones will be useful in detecting poachers as they enter the parks," said Wich to the BBC. "If they see poachers in the area, they can send out a team to catch them."

Related Links:
Cracking Down on Poaching of Endangered Species, CSI-Style

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