Photo by Conservation Drones
Twenty years ago I had a tsetse fly-filled conversation with some hardened and battle-scarred rangers about how to count rhinos in the very thick Miombo woodlands of southern Tanzania. Over the droning of those persistent and painful flies, we talked of getting a hobbyists’ radio-controlled airplane and attaching an infrared video camera for night flights to pick up the heat signatures of rhinos. Only elephants would have a bigger glow, so identification would be simple. Lots of ground could be surveyed, dense, dangerous thickets could be avoided, and poachers’ fires could be easily located by the handful of rangers responsible for a vast protected area. But small, infrared video cameras were not yet readily available to non-military types – ditto satellite tracking and GPS – and the hand-held radio range of the planes of the day was rather limited, so the rangers continued to walk transects and gingerly pick their way through tangled thickets, the haunts of slumbering and cranky rhinos and well-armed poachers.
In those twenty years since talking with the rangers, rhino and elephant populations have been decimated―only a handful of northern white rhinos still live in the wild―and the demand and prices for black market rhino horn and ivory are skyrocketing. Will the recent advent of the cost-effective, versatile unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)―the drones of our dreams―turn the tide in the fight for rhinos and the planet? Just in the past two years cost-effective drones and high-quality imaging capabilities have become readily available to conservationists, activists, researchers, and park managers (the adventurous suburbanite can also pick one up at Barnes & Noble Books).