Meet the drones proven to stop elephant and rhino poaching

Air shepherd anti-poaching drones
Screen capture Air Shepherd/Indiegogo

Air Shepherd is matching unmanned aerial vehicles with super computers to help rangers stop the slaughter – during tests in one area where 19 rhinos are typically killed monthly, there were zero deaths for 6 months.

Here are some desperately depressing numbers to consider: 40,000 elephants and over 1,200 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2014 – a rate that will lead both animals to extinction within 10 years if things don’t change. In the last half-dozen years there has been an exponential increase in the killing of these humble, majestic creatures. It’s getting worse and rangers are losing the war against poachers.

But a new approach using drones and big data may be able to put an end to the senseless slaughter.

The brains behind the brainstorm is the nonprofit organization, Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation and their program, Air Shepherd. Tests run by Nelson Mandela’s Peace Parks Foundation and UAV & Drone Solutions were so impressive and literally stopped poaching during trial runs. The Lindbergh Foundation then introduced the University of Maryland’s data analytic software which will be used to make the program even more effective.

Since poachers kill at night – and over vast expanses of land – it’s proven difficult for rangers to find them before it’s too late. The Air Shepherd team's unmanned aerial vehicles are equipped with infrared cameras and GPS with which they track and transmit thermal images of animals and poachers – silently collecting information that allows operators to quickly vector rangers to the location before an animal is killed.

But what makes this initiative all the more effective moving forward (and different from other drone-based anti-poaching efforts) is the data. Special analytics software spearheaded by Professor Thomas Snitch from the University of Maryland has been used by the Department of Defense to stop roadside bombings in Iraq with 93 percent accuracy; and when applied to poaching it is wildly effective. It considers data such as roads, topography, ranger availability, topography, water locations, historical info, animal movement, weather, season, full moon, and many other factors and predicts where poachers will be. The platform develops a coordinated theory that has been super successful so far; during tests in which the drones flew 1,000 hours and 650 missions, remarkably, no animals were killed.

Already seven countries in Africa have approached team members asking for help in developing anti-poaching programs; and Air Shepherd hopes to set up 45 to 50 teams – as a mid-range goal – to quickly broaden their reach and have a potentially dramatic effect on poaching.

They currently have an Indiegogo campaign running until April 11 to help secure more funding; specifically they are aiming for $500,000 to fund the daily operation of an existing drone team in South Africa for a full year. As they note, “You can literally help save these magnificent animals from extinction.”

And while the idea of drones patrolling the skies of Africa may seem surreal, the idea of a world without elephants and rhinos is even more so. If you can make a donation, click on over to the campaign; alternatively, simply sharing the news can help.

Saving the great animals of the planet, one unmanned aerial vehicle at a time? Whatever it takes. Watch the video below for more.

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