TANZANIA–For the last year, Bathawk Recon, a Tanzanian startup company, has been using unmanned aerial vehicles—i.e. drones—to track wildlife and poachers as part of an anti-poaching initiative. This is part of a larger movement in which drones are increasingly being used for environmental research and wildlife preservation. These drones, often referred to as eco-drones, can do everything from monitor polar ice melt to help determine animal migration patterns
In the last few years, elephant poaching has reached crisis levels in Tanzania. Statistics released by the government in June suggest that the country has lost 60% of its elephants to poaching over the last half decade—an average of 10-15,000 elephants each year.
China is known to be the largest source of ivory demand in the world, much of which is eventually turned into ornamental carvings. In October, Yang Feng Glan—who has been dubbed the “Ivory Queen”—was captured by Tanzanian officials as part of the country’s increased efforts to stem the poaching epidemic. Tanzania’s anti-poaching task force has identified at least 1,500 suspects and has arrested 870 poachers and illegal ivory traders in the last year.
A team of security experts and conservationists formed Bathawk Recon as another potential way of confronting to the seemingly intractable poaching crisis. The team believes drones can better protect wildlife in areas that are too large for rangers to cover. Each drone is equipped with color and infrared video surveillance cameras and can fly for about 8-10 hours, allowing it to cover huge stretches of land. Drone operators at a field station closely monitor the drone’s live video feed to detect any suspicious activity. If suspected poachers are detected, the pilots will communicate to nearby ranger units who will in turn use the GPS coordinates from the drone to locate the poachers.
Bathawk Recon has tested three high-tech drone models in different national parks across Tanzania in an effort to better understand what type of UAV is best suited to survey the challenging African terrain. Trials in September showed that the American made Superbat DA-50 aircraft was ideal for wildlife surveillance. During testing, this drone successfully detected and tracked people and wildlife in the national park from over 1,000 feet up in the air.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) there were more than 1.3 million African elephants in 1979, now there maybe as few as 400,000.
Drones are also being developed as an anti-poaching tool in other African countries including South Africa, Namibia, and Kenya, but have yet to be implemented on a broader scale. The Bathawk Recon team is currently in talks with the Tanzanian government to implement the drone surveillance system in several of the country’s national parks. It aims to be the first company to develop a wide-scale, cost-effective UAV anti-poaching surveillance program in Africa.