Park rangers trying to tackle illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking could soon have a new tool, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can cover large distances to detect and locate poachers.
At the start of November, UAVs designed by teams from around the world will be put to the test in South Africa in a bid to find the ultimate anti-poaching drone.
This will be the final step in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc), a competition that has been running since October 2013 to guide competing teams through the process of developing and constructing a cost-effective, robust drone to combat poaching.
The winning design will have a significant effect of the growing poaching problem in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where it will be used by park rangers to tackle the shocking levels of rhino poaching.
While equipment does exist to fulfil this function, there is a pressing need for affordable UAVs with adequate sensing and communication technology to keep rangers informed.
Writing in The Futurist, wcUAVc founder Princess Aliyah Pandolfi explained the challenges with using existing drones to track poachers: “Kruger’s rangers had experimented with aircraft developed for other purposes, but affordable aircraft lacked the sensing, processing, and communications essential to the mission.”
The winning UAV should, however, resolve this issue. It will be able to be launched easily within the national park, withstand rugged terrain with several hours of operation time and detect poachers.
It will then use existing communication channels to alert park rangers, who can intervene before animals are hurt, before safely returning to its launch site for reuse.
All of this will need to be achieved for less than $3,000, meaning the competing teams face a significant challenge. However, existing systems will help; all rangers and visitors already carry RFID tags, making detection of unauthorised intruders significantly easier.
Kruger is home to a significant rhino population, but has seen a dramatic rise in poaching in recent years.
In 2000 only 7 rhinos died in South Africa, but by 2013 this had risen to 1004, with a similar number expected for 2014. There are fears that rhinos could die out completely by 2020 if nothing is done.
Rhinos are being poached for their horns, which are highly prized for use in medicine in China and Vietnam. As China’s middle class has grown over the past decade, it is believed that demand for such medicine has increased, prompting a rise in poaching.
“Perhaps in a few generations, the demand for rhino horn will decrease, but unless the poaching ends, the rhinos will be gone in just a few years,” said Pandolfi.