Unmanned “Unplugged”

Marc Goss, Mara Elephant Project

Marc Goss is the manager of the Mara Elephant Project, which works to combat elephant poaching on the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. He recently started using UAS as part of these efforts, developing innovative applications of the technology in this new field. His work with UAS has been featured in Bloomberg and VICE.

How did the Mara Elephant Project first develop, and when did you start using UAS?

MEP first developed as a response to the rapidly increasing poaching of elephants in the Mara ecosystem. The team consists of 30 rangers who furnish antipoaching patrols, ambushes and sting operations. We are currently based in five mobile camps over a huge area and have been responsible for arresting more than 90 ivory poachers in the last two years of operation.

We have collared 15 elephants across the ecosystem to identify where the elephants go, alert us when they are in problem areas and what brings them to certain areas. This information has been especially helpful in helping the Kenyan government and NGOs [World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy] identify areas which need to be looked at to conserve. This collar data has been the single most effective tool in quantifiably showing elephant dispersal areas. This data will in turn form the longer term elephant strategy plan for Narok County. We are funded by the Escape Foundation and other smaller partners.

We have been using the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 for aerial images and movies and [have been] experimenting with moving elephants out of dangerous areas. We have been using the UAS for about a year now. The project developed from a suggestion from a friend of mine who has been advocating the use of blimps for aerial mapping.

We are still very much in the testing phase, and we have been trying to get more UAS so that each ranger section has at least one — only then will we be able to start telling the true deployment usefulness of the UAS. Most of the poaching happens outside the national reserve known as Maasai Mara National Reserve [MMNR]. These areas are dispersal areas for elephants. Some of these areas are informally protected as conservancies. Other areas are community areas or group ranches.

What are some of the issues you face trying to stop elephant poachers on the reserve?

The demand for ivory continues to be a huge issue, which fuels the dealers, middlemen and poachers’ lust for ivory. In the past, we have seen insufficient fines from the judiciary, which has been an issue for the security of the rangers — the main fact being that poachers were not being punished. Now ivory poachers are being prosecuted under the Economic Crimes Act and the Organized Crimes Act, so we are seeing more custodial sentencing and much higher fines. Sections 42 and 43 of the wildlife bill carried the maximum fine of $500 per count. Now charges carry $100,000 fines and/or 10-year jail terms.

How are you using UAS to help protect elephants from poachers? How have they helped in your efforts?

I think the short answer to this is that they have not directly intervened in stopping elephant poachers. The UAS we have as basically toys, and we would like to see some more advanced hardware to help the rangers. Due to the airspace laws here and the lack of UAS amendments to the laws, we would like to expand on the short range UAS; that can be deployed during operations.

What are the benefits of using UAS? What advantages do they offer over other methods you have used?

Sending in a UAS first is less of a risk then sending in a human. Also during operations an eye in the sky, even if it is 50 feet, may be very helpful. You can make sure the men are in the right formation, identify where the poachers are and use that information during the operation to make sure they don’t escape or how to cut them off. The risk is always that in covert operations the enemy sees the UAS and splits.

What other technologies have you used in conjunction with UAS to improve your conservation efforts? How do these technologies work together to help you?

We have looked at pepper spray release canisters below each rotor that is dispensed using the downwash to help chase elephants out of crop areas. We have not done test trials on this, because we do not have a remote release system or figured out what kind of canisters or simple blower tubes to use.

What types of UAS are you using? Why did you choose these models?

We are using the Parrot AR Drone 2.0, which only has a range of 40 meters and is limited to daylight flight. This project has been something that I have experimented with while running the Mara Elephant Project. Due to the relatively small amount of information about the use of UAS in antipoaching, work it has been something that has not really caught on.

Do you have any plans to expand your use of UAS in the Mara Elephant Project?

I would like to expand the project to at least have some AR UAS or smaller in each ranger section that men can get up quickly. This will allow us to get much needed data about if they really help. I would love to know more about the U.S. military applications and what they are seeing with the short-range, hand-launched UAS. We don’t actually have a budget for this project, so I hope that some of the kind donation offers will materialize and we can get some of the modifications completed to collect more data.

Have you collaborated with any other groups to discuss using UAS for conservation?

There has been a lot of work done with UAS for conservation but mostly on monitoring habitat destruction or census work. The WWF have been experimenting, or talking about experimenting, here with larger fixed-wing UAS. As of yet, these projects are not legal. The Ol Pejeta conservancy UAS project, I hear, was just shut down due to the aviation laws here. I do think that the short range UAS would be a great asset to ground teams.

How do you think that UAS will affect the future of conservation? What do you think are the most exciting applications of the technology for conservation?

I think in the next five years we will continue to see huge improvements in effectiveness of UAS for conservation. One idea that Frank Pope from Save the Elephants and I were discussing was a UAS that lives on an elephant’s back. It lands on the elephant and stays there sending vital information to satellites and then wakes up to fly above the herd while taking footage when the herd is in distress, crosses a geo-fence or hears gunshots. It could actually fly up and film the poachers and follow them while leading the ground teams in. Now that may be a far way off but would be pretty amazing. For one, elephants hate UAS or their noise so it might scare them too much. It would also have to be super strong to withstand a mud bath or going through thick bush.