A Colorado man is teaching African park rangers to fly drones to combat poachers. Chris Miser, the owner of Falcon Unmanned, has teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund in an effort to protect elephants and rhinoceros.
“Thousands of elephants are dying each year” said Miser, “and we are just hitting a tipping point with the rhinos.”
Miser’s line of drones, which he calls “Falcons,” are tethered to a bungee cord and tossed into the air like a sling shot. The “pilot” can control the plane from a remote location with a video game controller and a laptop computer. The drones are only “armed” with high-definition cameras and heat sensing technology, so the operator can track animal herds or poachers poised to attack.
Monitoring poachers with drones will give park rangers a fighting chance against heavily armed, high-tech, poachers.
“They are carrying machine guns, they’ve got night vision goggles.”
Miser said there are even some reports of poachers using helicopters to track animals and drop them into parks. The park rangers often don’t have access to manned aircraft. The drones provide an “eye in the sky” at a relatively low cost.
“A couple poachers will go find an animal and kill it. Or, while it’s still alive, chop off the rhino horn with a chainsaw or handsaw while the animal is just writhing in pain.” Miser said. “They need technology to fight this fight. We are just trying to level the playing field for them.”
Elephant tusks and rhino horns are popular in Asia where some people believe they have medicinal properties. Despite a global ban on ivory trafficking, poaching is still a $10 billion business.
In Colorado in 2013, U.S. Wildlife officials crushed a collection of “Blood Ivory” from more than 2,000 poached African elephants. The ivory was seized over the past 25 years and held at a repository in the Denver area.
“By destroying this ivory the entire world will see that the American government is interested in stomping out the illegal ivory trade”, said Amy Hoffner, who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, as the ivory was being crushed.
World Wildlife Fund director Crawford Allan is hopeful the drones will make a difference.
“The poachers out there know there is something in the sky looking for them,” Allan said.
Despite the positive uses for drones there is still a lot of fear surrounding the technology. In recent weeks, both Kenya and South Africa have banned drones for civil uses.
“It is important that the message goes out that these can be used for a positive good,” said Allan. “These aren’t weapons of destruction, these are weapons in this case are going to help save species from extinction and also keep rangers alive on the ground.”